This chapter of the Torah is dramatic, vivid, troubling, magnificent. I will outline the story, and then touch upon one recurring theme - the revelation of God to his people. Here are the sections -- for each item we can ask "what is this really saying," and "why" and "what does this mean for us?"
- The Lord has just given the priestly benediction to Moses
- The second Passover, and interesting laws
- The wondrous silver trumpets
- The sacred cloud of the Tabernacle lifts and the Israelites begin a splendid procession, but Hobab and his people do not go.
- In 10:35-36 we have the marching song of Moses, bracketed with inverted nuns -- this is a treat for esoteric scholarship.
- The people complain bitterly, and a fire of the Lord breaks forth at the camp.
- The riffraff in their midst feel a gluttonous craving, because they were tired of eating manna.
- Moses tells God he cannot bear the burden of the demands of the people.
- The Lord tells Moses to set up a leadership council of 70 elders.
- The spirit of the Lord visits the elders and then leaves them.
- Eldad and Medad, who are not elders, prophesy in ecstasy; Joshua objects, but Moses says, "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets."
- Because the people demand meat, the Lord gives the Children of Israel so much quail meat that they get sick. The language is terrifying and so is the thought.
- Miriam and Aaron chastise Moses for taking a Cushite wife; God speaks to them; Miriam is stricken, and Moses prays for her.
But why should the Israelites embrace the Lord? Because Moses is their leader? Where is their revelation? They see signs and wonders and the outstretched arm of the Lord. There are speeches and songs and miracles and rituals and adventures. Wonders and magic speak to their Egyptian roots. And signs are profoundly important for us all -- but the signs and symbols must echo our experience and reality. Moses and Aaron see an urgent reality behind the symbols. The Israelites do not see God face-to-face, nor hear his word directly. Their signs and symbols are transitory.
One theme of the book of Numbers is revelation. This is the blessing when the Lord shines his face upon us. How can a person see the way of the Lord? In Numbers there are a few suggestions -- the dedicated ascetic Nazirite (a route looked upon with caution by the Rabbi's), -- the way of ritual and service -- the path of righteousness, especially for the community -- the study of the word of God -- the praise and fear and delight in God.
There is a hierarchy of Jewish mysticism. First, experience with the world. Next, study, with the goal of maturity, and wisdom. The unexamined life is not worth living. Isn't it a blessing to have clear goals and priorities! We all relish meeting people who show us a clarity and dedication to the path to righteousness. But beyond ethical humanism, with the spirit of God comes revelation. Then, prophecy. That sounds like a word we hear when surfing the cable channels on Sunday. But it is a Jewish word that did not disappear with Daniel.
The Talmud shows that the most important revelation is not merely an awakening, but prophecy, when God tells a person in ecstasy what he or she must do. Prophecy is genuine in the Torah; a prophet does not have to prove himself.
The great Maimonides devotes 17 chapters to prophecy in the Guide to the Perplexed . He calls prophecy, "The highest degree and greatest perfection man can attain." As an Aristotelian philosopher, Maimonides searches for the First Cause of prophecy, which must be God or his agent, an angel. Sounding like the physician, Maimonides gives a fascinating diagnosis of 11 degrees of prophecy, including psychic, emotional, and religious aspects.
These prophetic dramas start within our experiences. Maimonides writes, "The first degree of prophecy consists in the divine assistance which is given to a person, and induces and encourages him to do something good and grand..This degree of divine influence is called 'the spirit of the Lord.'"
Revelation and prophecy seem so un-American, such quaint ideas -- so uncomfortable words for a well-read, Reform Jew. But let us put aside our modern prejudices, open our hearts and minds, and listen to the priestly blessing with less intellectual arrogance and more humility -- may we see God reveal his way as we walk down the path.
May Adonai bless us and keep us!
May Adonai shine his face upon us and deal graciously with us!
May Adonai lift up his face towards us and grant us peace!