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Parshat Behaalotecha: A stranger among us

Did a lack of awareness of how good the Israelites had it make them blind to the fact that they were excluding Moses' trusted adviser and father-in-law, Jethro? (Behaalotcha)
Minik Wallace in New York. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Minik Wallace in New York. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Peary was an American explorer who fell in love with the ice and cold of the Arctic. Between 1886 and 1909, he made several trips to the frozen north in attempt after attempt to be the first man to reach the North Pole. Although he returned triumphantly to New York telling the papers he had finally reached the pole on April 6, 1909, later expeditions and Peary’s own diaries cast serious doubt on that claim.

Peary was the first Western Arctic explorer to study and adopt Inuit survival techniques. Before each attempt to reach the top of the world, Peary and his team would set up camp in Greenland and became well-acquainted with the Inuit who lived there (intimately acquainted – Peary fathered at least two children, Kaala and Karree, with a local girl named Aleqasina. I say “girl” because she was about 14 when their relationship started).

On one of Peary’s trips he decided it would be interesting to bring some Inuit back with him to New York. It is unclear whether the six Inuit volunteered to come with him or were coerced. Peary certainly promised them that he would return them to Greenland after their US visit. So 47-year-old Nooktah, his wife Ahtungahnaskaah, their 10-year-old daughter Ahweah, a man named Weestakupsi, Kassuh and his 9-year-old son Minik (also known as Mene) boarded Peary’s ship, “The Hope.”

On October 1, 1897, the headline in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle read:

Crowds Throng the Hope: Much Admiration Expressed for Pretty Ahtungahnaskaah, wife of brave Nooktah.

However, the next line tempered the excitement somewhat:

The Eskimos and their dogs suffer greatly from the heat – curious about the great 100-ton meteorite. It will be unloaded at the Navy Yard tomorrow – The Hope will go out of commission.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 1, 1897. (Public Domain/ Screenshot)

Unfortunately, nobody had thought of where the Inuit would be housed (or for their return), so they ended up living in the basement of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Although they were not on display to the general public, many wealthy or important figures came to gaze and gawp at the group.

But not for long. Having no immunity, within a few months, four of the Inuit had died of tuberculosis, including Minik’s father. The surviving adult was returned to Greenland but 9-year-old Minik remained alone and unwanted in New York.

Robert Peary (1856-1920) Self-Portrait, Cape Sheridan, Canada, 1909. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The boy insisted that his father should have a proper Inuit funeral. So one evening, towards dusk, a young, tearful orphan conducted his tribal rituals over the body of his late father, which was then covered with a mound of stones.

Bereft of mother and father, Minik was adopted by William Wallace, the museum’s superintendent, who raised him alongside his own son. Minik was sent to Manhattan College, learned to speak English, play baseball and ride a bicycle. He enjoyed swimming and even took up golf.

Minik with the Wallace family, 1900. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

But the good times didn’t last long. In 1901 Wallace was fired from the museum for taking bribes. He and his family, including Minik, were left virtually penniless. Wallace appealed to Morris Jesup, the wealthy president of the museum, for help to fund Minik’s schooling. But his request was refused.

Then in 1904, Wallace’s wife died. With no mother to look after him, Wallace sent his own son away to live with relatives, but kept Minik with him. The pair drifted around New York city, struggling to survive.

In 1906 Minik received an even harsher blow. He read a newspaper report saying that his father’s skeleton was on display in the museum. He confronted Wallace. What about the funeral? Hasn’t Minik performed the rites over his father?

Wallace admitted that the whole thing had been a sham. He later wrote in his diary:

That night some of us gathered on the museum grounds by order of the scientific staff, and got an old log about the length of a human corpse. This was wrapped in cloth, a mask attached to one end of it and all was in readiness.

Dusk was the time chosen for the mock burial, as there was some fear of attracting too much attention from the street.… Then, too, the boy would be less apt to discover the ruse. The funeral party knew the act must be accomplished quickly and quietly, so about the time the lights began to flare up Minik was taken out on the grounds, where the imitation body was placed on the ground and a mound of stones piled on top of it after the Eskimo fashion.

“While Minik stood sobbing by, the museum men lingered around watching the proceedings. The thing worked well. The boy never suspected….”

Not only had Wallace been complicit in betraying Miniks’ trust and faking the funeral, but the body had been sent to Wallace’s estate where he had a workshop where the body was de-fleshed and the skeleton mounted on a frame before being returned to the museum.

Betrayed and heartbroken, Minik demanded to be taken back to Greenland and to be given his father’s body to take back with him. Eventually, in 1910, Peary and his supporters sent Minik back to Greenland, but the museum refused to return Kassuh’s body and managed to avoid an investigation. Peary said he sent Minik back “laden with gifts” but subsequent research found that he was returned to the country of his birth with little more than the clothes on his back.

By now he’d forgotten his native language, Inuktun, and had a huge struggle to re-adapt to the lifestyle. He had to learn how to speak and to hunt and very quickly became a good hunter. Three years later, he acted as a guide for Donald Baxter MacMillan, who led a team that tried and failed to discover Crocker Land, which would have supported Peary’s claim that he was the first to reach the North Pole.

Illustrative image of an Inuit family in 1917. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

By 1916 Minik felt too much like a fish out of water. He was no longer Inuit or American, but he decided to return to the United States.

Back in the US, Minik eventually found work in a lumber camp in North Stratford, New Hampshire. Afton Hall, his boss, invited the Inuit to live with him and his family. For almost the first time in his life, Minik was surrounded by a loving family, and was finally happy. *

This week’s Torah reading is Beha’alotecha. In it, the Hebrews prepared to head to the land of Israel. They received instructions for how the camp was to travel and how to transport the Tabernacle; Moses fashioned trumpets to sound when it was time to strike camp. When the pillar of cloud rose it would be time to go.

Moses told his father-in-law Jethro (also known as Hobab) that they were about to go to Israel (Numbers 10:29):

Moses said to Hobab, son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’s father-in-law: We are traveling to the place about which God said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Go with us and we will do good for you, because God has spoken good things about Israel.

Jethro had abandoned his position of leadership in Midian, given up everything he had, to come and join the Hebrews at Sinai. In the Israelite camp he was honored as the leader’s father-in-law and gave advice to Moses which was accepted and endorsed by God. He even had a portion of the Torah named for him. So, his response is somewhat surprising (Numbers 10:30):

He said to him, ‘I will not go. But I will go back to my land, to my birthplace.’

Moses pleads unsuccessfully with him to change his mind, and Jethro disappears from the story.

Jethro had everything he could possibly want as part of the Israelite camp. Yet, he felt like a fish out of water. He knew that his “otherness” would only become more pronounced once the Israelites entered Israel. So, he returned to Midian, where he had nothing but his land and place of birth. It would be many hundreds of years before Jethro’s descendants once again come to the aid of the Israelites and are rewarded for it.

A few verses later (Numbers 11:4-6) the mixed multitude within the camp, who also had everything, wanted to turn back.

The mixed multitude that was in their midst were filled with desire. They sat and cried, and the Children of Israel along with them, and said, ‘Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we would eat in Egypt for free, the zucchini, the watermelon, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our souls are dry, we have nothing except this manna to look at.

Just like Jethro missed his home, so the Children of Israel missed the security and imagined freedom of Egypt. The manna was the most incredible food in history, and could taste like anything at all, apart from those five vegetables. But they preferred the meat and fish of Egyptian bondage to the service of God demanded by the heavenly food.

This time, Moses didn’t try to reason with the people. “God grew very angry and it was bad in Moses’s eyes,” (Numbers 11:10).

Moses felt like a failure and turned to God. How was it possible that these people, who had been given everything they could possibly imagine, were still complaining?

The contrast is stark. Jethro is a minority of one living among the Jews. The more settled the Hebrews become in the Land of Israel, the more the former Midianite priest will struggle to find his place. Whereas, the Children of Israel are in a position of privilege. They had been given food, shelter and security without any effort. They were about to inherit a land promised them by God. Yet, they complain that they still want more.

In between these two sections in the Torah are two verse bracketed off by two upside-down letter nuns. The Talmud (Shabbat 115a) explains that these verses were inserted here to separate between two tragic incidents: the latter incident is the complaints of the Israelites; the former is leaving Mount Sinai.

The implication is that these two terrible events should not be placed immediately one after the other. Which is strange, because there are many places in the Torah where bad things occur one after another, with no need for an artificial textual interruption.

Is it possible that the brackets here mask the fact that the two events both have the same underlying cause? Could it be that the Jews’ sense of entitlement was the very same reason that Jethro knew he could never feel as though he belonged with them? Maybe the lack of awareness of how good they had it made the Jews blind to the suffering of the old Midianite priest?

The Talmud (Sota 14a) states that the beginning of the Torah is kindness (God caring for Adam and Eve) and the end of the Torah is kindness (God burying Moses). The purpose of Torah is to teach kindness. To show us how to think about others and care for them.

* Unfortunately, Minik’s happiness didn’t last for long. In 1918, he and most of the family and workers in the lumber yard died during the Influenza epidemic. He was only 28 years old.

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I first learned about Minik Wallace from the incredible The Constant podcast. Go and listen to it. In fact, listen to every podcast Mark Chrisler has ever done. If you enjoyed my blog you’ll love his podcast.

I’ve started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley. You can also listen to some live or recorded Torah classes at WebYeshiva.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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