Sunday, June 4, 2017

Behaalotecha: The 70 Elders, A Shoemaker, and Poisoned Quail: Questioning God's Judgment

Behaalotecha

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Introduction: Synopsis of Parsha: The Children of Israel grow tired of the manna, the heavenly bread which God sends daily, and implore Moses and God to send them meat. Once again, they invoke the memory of the fruits and vegetables which they ate a-plenty in Egypt—strange, because this is the Wilderness Generation, the Exodus Generation having died out, for the most part, following the Sin of the Golden Calf. Nevertheless, tribal memories persist, and stories exaggerate the truth. The people work themselves into an emotional state of grief and weeping, so great is their lust for meat.
Unable to bear the “burden of the people” any longer (Num. 11:11), Moses asks God for some assistance—which he has done before, to no avail. On this occasion, however, God permits him to appoint Seventy Elders to assist him in governing, administering, and judging the Israelites. God agrees, instructs Moses to bring these worthies to the Tent of Meeting, and promises that meat will arrive the next day.
Moses states his doubts that God cannot provide enough beef for 600,000 people for a month, but God chides him, “Is there a limit to My power?” (11:23). There is an added miracle, of Eldad and Medad, who prophesy ecstatically within the camp, while the Elders gather at the Tent of Meeting.
Then, the flocks of quail arrive, drawn by a strong west wind….

            My name is Navi been Chozeh, of the Tribe of Benjamin. My people have always been shoemakers—why, do you ask, Stranger? I recall the words of my great-great-grandfather, the first Chozeh: “Some may herd sheep, some goats; but they will always need sandals to carry them.” Yes, it has been a good life, whether living in a stucco hut or goatskin tent, tapping on a piece of leather. Throughout times of plenty or famine, my family never starved. True, the poor might go barefoot, but the wealthy always wanted their fine footwear.
            Style? Why, what did I know of style? There was a time, a few years ago, when some other sandalmaker decided that our shoes ought not to have heels—“More natural for the footprint in the sand,” he thought, and, sure enough, we all started cutting ‘em out, the same way—but I, nonetheless, made only a few that way. The bulk of my trade remained the conventional type—sole in front, if you please, heel in back.
            Don’t mess around with what works, my father taught me, and he was right. Those heel-less monstrosities soon disappeared, and my regular sandals returned—and I cleaned up a nice profit, while my more trendy competitors went begging—why, one or two of the younger, more daring fellows even went out of business. One hung up his last and started baking bread. Was it tasty? I can’t say. Adonai preserve those who eat a shoemaker’s bread, as they say. What, you’ve never heard of that? It’s an old, old saying among us….
            But that is not the essence, the main leather sole, if you please, of my tale. No. What happened was, I was sitting in my sandal-shop-tent that hot day—when was it?—just two days ago. And, suddenly, HE appeared, all wild-eyed, tousle-headed, and his beard flying every which-way—Rabbi Moses himself! I leapt up, and bowed myself to the ground.
            “Milord Moses!” I cried, though my voice was muffled by my beard’s being in it, and also for being pressed to the desert dust below, “What brings you to my humble shoemaker’s tent?”
            “Navi?” he asked, staring ‘round the tent’s interior like a wild man, “Navi ben Chozeh? Is it you, Boy?”
            “It is,” I replied, rising to a sitting position slowly, “could I get you some water, Rabbi?”
            “No time,” he rasped, staring straight past me and over my head, as if he were talking to Someone invisible in the corner. “I have a mess—message for you. You are—you are—to be one of my Seventy Elders! Report to the Tent of Meeting in ten minutes!”
            And he was gone, leaving behind a mixed smell of sweat and incense.
            Here’s a how-de-do, I thought, putting aside the sandals I was repairing, and carefully laying my hammer, nails, and other tools in their proper places (Papa taught me well: “If you carefully and calmly your shoe-tools store/ You’re find them later, where they were, before.”). And then, realizing I should tell my dear ones, I called,
“Ho there, Wife Techiya! And my children—Yoram, Eliphalet! Come to Papa!”
            My wife ran in, wiping her hands on a towel—she had been cooking one of her excellent casseroles for dinner. The boys were slower, my blessed louts—Yoram was a great slug of fourteen, but Eliphalet was quicker, being only eleven. He was my favorite.
            “I must be off to prophesy,” I told them, and explained what the Great Rabbi Moses had said to me.
            “You could at least have told me when he was here, so I could have met our Wonderful Leader,” complained Techiya.
            “What, My Precious, and serve him a bowl of soup?” I chided her, while the boys stood, and scraped their feet in the dust. “Listen, you two,” I said to the boys, “while I am away, the shop is closed. Do not play in here, nor pretend that you are suddenly master shoemakers. If you break anything, I will break your hides.”
            The boys muttered, mumbled, and looked down at the ground. I scolded them—I know how boys think; I was one, once. Techiya, bless her, packed me a change of clothes—who’s to say whether Rabbi Moses would be taking us out into the wilderness for an ordeal with God, or to build a sweat-lodge?—and some food. I kissed them all goodby, and left.
            When I got to the Tent of Meeting, it was hardly a meeting of the Sons of the Prophets, such as I recall my grandfather’s telling us about from his youth: bands of ragtag ecstatics wandering through the countryside, screaming and crying, waving begging bowls under the noses of respectable householders, rolling their eyes, dragging filthy fingers through bedraggled beards, and spittle running down their chins while they mumbled or shrieked “in tongues,” as they called it, while little children followed at a respectable distance, and older kids made fun, and even threw rocks.
            No: this was a highly respectable gathering of small tradesmen, like myself, all milling about, greeting one another, and having no idea what to do, where else to go, or even knowing where exactly Moses, Aaron, or Joshua were. I tell you, Stranger, it was a puzzlement!
            I saw my good friends and fellow shoemakers, Shelumiel ben Sodi and Pedahzur ben Katriel, excellent leather-bangers both, and we stood and discussed the state of our profession. We agreed that the quality of leather had definitely gone down since our departure from Egypt—though mind you, none of us had actually participated in the Exodus; we were too young, but the Tradition’s stories have been passed down, parent to child.
            “What’s all this about, then?” asked Pedahzur, but the rest of us had no idea. And so we talked, and wondered, while the sun grew hotter. We started to share our lunches, and there was a little creek nearby—it must have been a gift from God.
            Suddenly, there was a great whirring of wings, and we saw them—flocks of quail, as far as the eye could see—I tell you, Stranger, they darkened the sky. We knew in an instant that this was the Great Miracle which God had promised. We all clapped and cheered; it had been months since any of us had eaten anything but that tiresome manna, that concoction of seeds mixt with honey.
 Some of us—the more spiritual fellows—began to dance in circles, chanting:
            “O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good;
            We asked for meat, and He gave it to us, in plenty.
            Praise ye the Lord, the Lord!”
And now, what was the purpose of us, the Seventy Elders? We looked up: there was Joshua. He gave us a short speech, told us that Rabbi Moses was resting: we were to stand by, wait for the Spirit of Prophecy to settle upon us, and that we would receive further instructions about aiding Moses and himself in ministering to the people; in the meantime, best to go home, and partake of God’s gift: the quail-meat we had long awaited. Yum—a pleasure in the mouth and belly! We could hardly wait.
I and my two shoemaker-fellows were trudging homeward—and I tell you, Stranger, we were disappointed, indeed. We had followed instructions, as closely as one might follow our Rabbi’s Torah; we had reported to the Tent of Meeting, to be met with—nothing. What was our promised mission? How were we to assist Moses in serving our People?
Suddenly, I saw him running toward me—my younger son, Eli. He was looking through the crowd of us, frantically. I called to him: “I say there—Son! My son! Eliphalet ben Navi! Here I am, my boy! Why, what’s the matter?”
He came up to me, panting and sweating: “O Father—both Mother and my brother Yoram—they are—they are—“
“They are—what?” I asked, taking my boy by his skinny shoulders and holding him before me, “Cooking the meat which God has sent? Plucking away the feathers of God’s bounty? Gathering the greatest number of quail which anyone can hold in your Mum’s biggest basket, hey?”
He burst into tears. I hugged him. “Why, what’s the matter? Why cry over a delicious feast of poultry we are about to enjoy, by the grace of God? I am overjoyed that my son, my Eli-dear has come to meet his father—do you know my friends?—(both of my comrade shoemakers patted his back)—but what ails you, Boy?”
“Dead,” he managed to sob out, “Dead.”
“What? Who?” I stammered. “Who is dead?”
“Mother. Yoram, my brother. Both, dead. From eating evil, tainted quail meat.”

BeIt was true. God had, out of pure anger for our rejecting His manna, poisoned the meat. I was instantly bereft of both wife and elder son—and I still do not know why. O God! Why call me an “Elder,” why grant me some piddling powers of prophecy, if, in Your questionable wisdom, you destroy my family? I am no sinner, but a loyal Hebrew….