Parashat Baha’alotkha, 5781
In Parashat Baha’alotkha, there are two teachings about voice and sound. One is God’s instruction to Moshe to fashion two silver trumpets. The other is the story of two men, Eldad and Medad, who, infused by God with Moshe’s spirit, begin speaking prophecy. I would like to offer a way of understanding the relationship between these two moments.
Towards the beginning of the parasha, God commands Moshe to fashion two silver trumpets. The Torah says:
Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Have two silver trumpets made; make them of hammered work. They shall serve you to summon the community and to get the people to start moving. (Bemidbar 10:1-2)
God instructs Moshe to fashion these trumpets for himself. Literally, the text says, “Make for yourself two silver trumpets.” One tradition explains this phrase to mean, “pay for them yourself.” Another, however, explains these words to mean that these trumpets were for Moshe alone. Despite the fact that Aharon’s sons, the Kohanim, would use trumpets to herald the people for all sorts of occasions, these trumpets were Moshe’s only. The midrash teaches this point this way:
“Make for yourself silver trumpets.” For yourself you shall make [them] and not for others. You are to use them, and no one else is to use them. …when Moses was going to depart this world, he said (Devarim 31:28), ‘Gather to me all the elders of your tribes [and your officials].’ But where were the trumpets? After all, the Torah says, ‘Blow the trumpets for [the people] to gather.’ Moshe called them because while he was [still] alive they were already hidden.” (Midrash Tanchuma, Beha’alotcha 10:1)
This Midrash emphasizes that not only would nobody else be able to use Moshe’s trumpets, but that he buried them at the end of his life to insure that nobody could ever use them. The rabbis in the Talmud develop this idea explicitly:
The Gemara asks: How do we know that these trumpets were unfit for future generations?…[It is because] the verse states the phrase, “for you” twice: “Make for you two trumpets of silver, of beaten work you shall make them, and they shall be for you for the calling of the congregation” (Bavli Menaḥot 28b)
To me, it is clear that the trumpets are an extension of Moshe’s voice. They are his voice of strength, of guidance, of direction, of instruction, and of inspiration. Nobody could use his voice. Moshe needed to fashion — we would say, “find” — his own voice. From a person suffering from a speech impediment, embarrassed and insecure about a language and speech impairment, Moshe became a forceful, courageous, articulate, spokesperson for the nation. He changed from a person who felt deep passion for what is right and acted on those passions, to a person who learned to voice his passions to inspire others. When Moshe killed the Egyptian who was beating a slave mercilessly, he ran for his life. He was a singular individual who, despite his upbringing, quickly peripheralized himself as a pariah. Now, in parashat baha’alotkha, Moshe has the tools necessary to inspire a movement. That was precisely what Benei Yisrael required at that moment: someone whose voice could transform them into a movement. They literally had been preparing to move, and this was the moment. Indeed, the rest of chapter 10 describes the formations of the tribes for marching forward, and 10:35 famously declares:
וַיְהִ֛י בִּנְסֹ֥עַ הָאָרֹ֖ן וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֑ה קוּמָ֣ה ׀ ה׳ וְיָפֻ֙צוּ֙ אֹֽיְבֶ֔יךָ וְיָנֻ֥סוּ מְשַׂנְאֶ֖יךָ מִפָּנֶֽיךָ׃
When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Advance, Hashem! May Your enemies be scattered, And may Your foes flee before You!
The trumpets were Moshe’s alone. He knew that true leadership requires the right voice of inspiration, of motivation, of clarity, and nobody else could sound those instruments. Every generation requires their own voice of leadership. Hence, he buried the trumpets before he passed to the next world.
Once the people start moving, however, their spiritual fragility emerges. Food from Heaven does not sustain them. They complain. They demand meat. They romanticize Egypt. They forget their oppression, and remain oblivious to how dehumanized they had become. Moshe fears that he can no longer carry the leadership alone. His father-in-law, Yitro, called “Re’uel,” “friend,” will not accompany him, his most trusted advisor. In response, God tells Moshe to assemble 70 elders, men worthy of leadership, to share the burden of governance. God will establish this group by enabling Moshe’s spirit to “radiate” onto and through the group. The Torah then recounts:
Then God came down in a cloud and spoke to Moshe; God enabled Moshe’s spirit to radiate through the elders. And when the spirit rested upon them, they spoke in ecstasy, as prophets. Then they stopped. However, two men, Eldad and Medad, had remained in camp, and Moshe’s spirit rested upon them—and they spoke in ecstasy in the camp. A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!” And Yehoshua bin Nun, Moshe’s servant said, “My lord Moshe, stop them!” But Moshe said to him, “Are you jealous for me? Would that all God’s people were prophets, that God put the divine spirit upon them!” (Bemidbar 11:25-29)
Each of these leaders gained their own voice. Their voices trembled in “ecstasy,” with passion. Moshe’s spirit transformed them, they were changed, and then developed their own voices, filled with passion and inspiration. This group was prepared to act, to help the nation move forward, to progress, to become independent and dedicated to God’s ideals, hopes and dreams for the Jewish people. Yehoshua wanted to hear only Moshe’s voice. Moshe understood: what was needed was a movement, a shared vision, by a group of people who would be moved to act. A society cannot be moved by only one person, as passionate and powerful as that person’s voice might be. Eldad and Medad’s names are instructive here. The word, dad, here, means, “breast.” “Eldad” suggests, “divine sustenance,” as in, “God will nurse and nourish the people.” “Medad” means, “breastmilk.” Two trumpets. Two people whose names mean that the movement forward is sustained and nourished by the flow of divine energy with feminine imagery. Everyone can participate in that movement, everyone can find their voice. It takes humility and courage and passion. What was needed was a movement, and to create a movement, there needed to be a core of people moved to act.
The great Chasidic master, Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel of Apt, in his teaching called Ohev Yisrael, wrote a meditation on Moshe’s two trumpets. He wrote:
נבוא לבאר הפסוקים. עשה לך שתי חצוצרת. היינו שמשרע”ה יעשה מעצמו בחי’ שתי חצי צר”ת שתי בחי’ משה. בחי’ דכר ובחי’ נוק’ וכמבואר. כסף היינו שאלו הבחי’ יהיו נכספים ונחשקים זה לזה מלשון נכספה וגם כלתה נפשי. גם כסף הוא בחי’ חס”ד היינו כדי להמשיך חסד לכל העולמות.
“I will explain the verses describing the trumpets. When the Torah says, ‘fashion for yourself two trumpets,’ the word for trumpets is, chatzatzrot. [One way to explain this word is by dividing it into two words.] Our teacher, Moshe, fashioned himself into two dispositions that needed to become unified, chatzi—tzurot. One disposition is male, the other, female [like the original creation of humanity in Sefer Bereshit.] The fact that the trumpets were silver is also significant. The word kesef, silver, also means, ‘yearning.’ This is the yearning for bringing more chesed [and loving kindness into the world.]
I believe that the Apter Rebbe is saying that what informed Moshe’s voice was his heart, and what informed his heart was his yearning, and the object of his yearning was unity the way we all yearn for unity and intimacy with another human being. Moshe was the embodiment of God’s hope for all humanity. The Apter, emerging from our mystical tradition of the kabbalah, is saying: Moshe’s voice evoked our deepest need, the need to unite through love, and in so doing to unite the human and the divine with an energy that will permeate all reality. Moshe did not just speak. His neshama flowed through those trumpets. The energy and humility and strength that come from deep yearning for unity and love settled upon those 70 elders. The energy was so powerful that it flowed through and transformed Eldad and Medad. Moshe, like all authentic leaders, was not angry or defensive or scared. He was not afraid that his power was being diminished. He did not constrain them, shut their voices down. He saw that his responsibility was being fulfilled through the hope that a group of slaves could march together to fill the world with dignity, hope, kindness and love.
That is God’s calling to us, even today. We have still failed to find the voices of energy and inspiration to form the movement that will transform this society into one of righteousness, kindness, unity and love. More than anything else, the centrality and importance of voice requires our willingness to listen. Voice, in this sense, means the authenticity of one’s inner yearnings, feelings, frustrations, vision, and needs. It means that once people find a voice, everyone needs to start listening to each other, no matter how painful that process might be. Allowing others to speak in their own voice, and then listening to ours with empathy and heart, might be the first step in a long journey through the wilderness of our world. May that first step be God’s will.
Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Dov