When I returned to Jewish life in my 30s, Sam and I joined Rodef Sholom, but not until we interviewed the rabbi and asked him – I kid you not – twenty questions. And he answered them. Rabbi Michael Barenbaum was the first rabbi I ever loved. I have any number of stories I could tell you about him—funny, serious, sad, full of life. But there are a few that are relevant to what I had planned to talk about tonight; here’s one.
You may remember back to 1994, when we voted on Prop. 187, the initiative that would have prohibited immigrants from using California’s public health care, schools and social services. It passed and the courts overturned it. I don’t know if you remember how heated a battle it was. During High Holy Days that year, Rabbi Michael gave a stirring sermon against Prop 187, anchoring his talk firmly to Jewish tradition. Some people will tell you that you can argue any position with biblical text—after all, Isaiah tells us to beat our swords into plowshares and then Joel tells us to beat our plowshares into swords. But the text is unequivocal on a few things. One is its commitment to the vulnerable. Another is our responsibility to strangers because we were strangers in a strange land. Our history consistently reinforces this, as we have been buffeted by unfriendly nations for millennia. Our liturgy reminds us repeatedly that God brought us out of Egypt—to remember God’s power in our lives, AND to remind us that this too is part of our story so that we use it. He reminded us that it is fairness to the immigrant is a Jewish value.
Even with this bedrock tradition, it was a brave sermon to give then. He took flack for it. He filled the role of prophet on that night, as on so many other nights.
And this brings us to a small interlude, some 5 verses, in this week’s torah portion, Beha’alotecha, the 3rd portion in the book of Numbers or Bemidbar, the 4th book of the five books.
Numbers 11:26 Two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad, had remained in camp; yet the spirit rested upon them—they were among those recorded, but they had not gone out to the Tent—and they prophesied in the camp. 27 A youth ran out and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!” 28 And Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, “My lord Moses, restrain them!” 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all God’s people were prophets, that the Holy One of Blessingput God’s spirit upon them!” 30 Moses then reentered the camp together with the elders of Israel
So who were these characters? Why was Joshua so upset? And what was Moses thinking? What is the deal with prophesying in the camp? Can just anyone be a prophet or start prophesying?
Who were Eldad and Medad?
Remember back in the portion Yitro—Moses’ father-in-law—the wise elder tells Moses he can’t keep dealing with every problem of every Israelite or he will burn out? So Moses appoints 70 elders to help. Later on, indeed immediately before the verses I read, God’s spirit was infused into these men, who had arrived at the tent of meeting. They prophesied once, never to repeat it.
If you take 70 and divide it by 12—it doesn’t come out even: one or two tribes would have fewer representatives, with the ensuing likelihood of sparking intertribal conflict. According to one midrash, Eldad and Medad were two of those chosen, and they identified the problem—mathematically and diplomatically, and they volunteered to step down. They did not feel that they were worthy of the task, and were willing to hand it off to others. And for this, they were rewarded with the gift of prophecy, and prophesy they did.
Trying to get out of a task assigned by God has a venerable history in our tradition: remember Moses tried to avoid service at the burning bush, Jonah tried to avoid warning Ninevah, and many of the prophets in Nevi’im—the second section of the Tanakh also tried to get out of it. After all, it is debatable whether prophecy is such a gift. People rarely listen to you and then you watch them walk right into destruction and disaster. You irritate people telling them what they don’t want to hear.
But why was Joshua so upset and Moses so accepting?
One theory is that prophecy was tied up with the hierarchy of leadership, of institutions—whether the one Moses led in the wilderness or the judges or kingship that followed. One midrash tells us that Eldad and Medad prophesied a war, the aftermath of which would be the end of the world as they knew it, and a time when all the dead of Israel would rise and “partake in the bliss” promised to us. Joshua, the next generation leadership, was concerned with protecting the institutional leadership he would inherit—and this prophecy might have undermined his enterprise of getting us to the Promised Land.
Another interpretation is that Joshua was trying to protect Moses’ role as lead prophet, who spoke face to face with God. Rashi, the medieval French commentator par excellence, quotes a midrash that teaches that Eldad and Medad prophesied that Moses would die and Joshua would lead them into the Promised Land. Joshua might have perceived this as a threat to Moses.
Another possible explanation might come from the translation that appears in the Jewish Publication Society and Women’s Torah Commentary editions: words that I read you “they prophesied”—because that’s what v’yitnab’umeans—are translated as “they spoke in ecstasy”: maybe they looked suspicious or appeared seized by some force not necessarily godly. For whatever of these reasons, Joshua was profoundly disturbed.
But Moses was calm: would that all of us were prophets, that we all had God’s spirit on us, he tells Joshua.
And that’s the message for me this week: would that we all could access God’s spirit, God’s ruach.
In seminary, we learned that there are four components of being considered a prophet:
1) God approaches or calls or even confronts you, not vice versa – you can’t, according to this theory, decide to be a prophet on your own.
2) You speak the words of God, not your own.
3) You speak to the people, rather than sitting on the information. And
4) you offer words of warning about upcoming events.
And of course, you have to be right, otherwise it’s false prophecy.
Many of you may have learned that prophecy ended with Malachi at the end of the Tanakh. But there are signs that people prophesied for centuries later.
I have heard—and indeed believe—that we still have prophets in our midst: people like Martin Luther King, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, and Rabbi Michael Barenbaum. People who try to make us see how our behavior—how we treat the Other, how we treat the environment, how we treat the stranger—may lead to disastrous consequences.
Whether they are called by God, or speaking God’s exact words—in this day and age, even if this were so, they would likely be more effective NOT to share that piece of information, because we would be more likely to dismiss it or to want to lock the speaker up. And I don’t know how God would necessarily contact, approach or confront someone today: dreams, insights, visions?
And yet, one of the benefits that today’s world of information at our fingertips can bring us is the opportunity for each of us to read the writing on the wall—or screen, and to speak to the people—each other—to warn of the consequences of our actions. That’s taking on the God’s ruach.
That’s why I think about Rabbi Michael tonight—he was touched with the gift of prophecy – and always tried to help people to see the consequences of our choices—especially for the vulnerable around us and for our community , and yet was there to comfort when things went wrong. He didn’t shy away from controversy when he knew he was speaking to make the world a better place. Let’s take his example, so that his memory will be a blessing.