In this parshah, the people commemorate the Passover. This is the first such event in the desert, thus marking the time between Sinai and the wandering. Some in the camp (the JPS translation calls them “riffraff” but the implication is that they are those outside of the Israelite tribes who chose to join the exodus), begin to complain that there is no meat. Moses, in utter exasperation, becomes angry with God and says he would rather die than have to face leading these people. He also suggests that if God created the people than maybe he should deal with them. For this, partly as punishment and partly to provide him with aid, some of Moses’ spiritual gifts get transferred to 70 leaders who will aid him in the task of leading the people. This parshah therefore offers lessons in leadership and our struggles in life. Sometimes we are faced with situations in which we must care for or carry those who do not appear to be pulling their weight. Many of us work with people who complain and expect miracles to happen to ease their discomfort. Moses shows that leadership is hard; the people are never satisfied. And his criticism of the God-character – that if he created all of these people why can’t he deal with them – shows the kind of chutzpah that Humanistic Jews love. Moses is a good leader because he questions authority as much as he embodies it.
The 70 leaders become like prophets. Joshua – who we will learn has warrior tendencies and personality – feels Moses should resist competition and be the sole leader. But Moses knows that strong leadership is a team-effort and that if he shares the load he will not burn out as quickly. This is excellent instruction for anyone in a leadership position, from teachers to parents to office managers etc. But beyond the idea of leadership is the idea of community. Many hands make light work and sometimes all that is needed to face a challenge is some company. Moreover, Moses shows us that it is ok and sometimes even necessary to ask for help.
As if Moses is not having a tough enough time, Miriam and Aaron begin to chide him for marrying a Cushite woman. This is one of the passages that tells us either that intermarriages were frowned upon, or that intermarrying was commonplace and the writers of the text hoped to “correct” the practice. In some passages, such as this one, intermarriage is portrayed as negative. In others, such as the Book of Ruth, intermarriage is no issue at all. The issue of intermarriage in the text here is a bit of a red herring. The real sin is “lashon hara” or gossip/slander. Miriam and Aaron should not shame or speak negatively to Moses. Many Jews take very seriously the idea that we should not shame others, even when we disagree with their choices. Miriam is punished by getting leprosy (or some disease that produces white scales on her body) and must be excised from the group for a week. This punishment from above seems, again, rather harsh.
In this week’s parshah, we see examples of people faltering which, in fact, is a reminder that these narratives are about the fundamentals of humanity. All of us may feel ourselves to be in the position of Moses – that we cannot face the challenges before us. Asking for help is hard but when we get help it can change everything. Community is important. Many of us may feel ourselves to be Miriam – we speak out against what we think is wrong and then we are the ones to get punished. The biblical characters portray many truths about human nature, and this is how we learn from them. Humanistic Jews do not believe that we will be punished by a God for our transgressions. But we do believe that when we rise up to face our challenges, when we learn to speak more gently with our loved ones, when we find ways of dealing with the kvetchers in our midst, we can become the best versions of ourselves.