Who gets to speak for God?
Religions are all about acknowledging a divine voice and living in response to it. Naturally, all religions must deal with the question of who has the authority to speak for God and tell us what God wants. Who gets to play the prophet?
It is a question that might resonate a bit more strongly this week in the wake of the decision by Israel's Attorney General to give partial recognition to non-Orthodox rabbis. The Orthodox monopoly on speaking for God is starting to fracture in Israel.
Adonai told Moses, “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you know to be elders and officers of the people, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place there with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it upon them. They shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone… Then Adonai came down in a cloud and spoke to him. God drew upon the spirit that was on him and put it upon the seventy elders. And when the spirit rested upon them, they spoke in ecstasy, but did not continue.
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 spoke in ecstasy in the camp. A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are playing the prophet in the camp!” Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, “My lord Moses, restrain them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you upset on my behalf? Who has the power to make all of Adonai’s people into prophets? It is Adonai who has placed God’s spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:16-17; 25-29)
Moses makes it clear that the authority to speak for God does not necessarily flow from him or from any human authority. If we believe that God has the power to make the divine will known through human beings, God has the power to choose the agents of prophecy without regard to human institutions.
You may notice that there is an interesting ambiguity in the story. Why did Eldad and Medad not come to the Tent of Meeting if they were among the elders chosen by Moses? Why does the text say that God took some of Moses’ spirit and “put it upon the seventy elders”? If Eldad and Medad were missing, should the text not have said only sixty-eight?
There is a beautiful midrash on this story that explains the seeming inconsistency and, also, explains the merit by which Eldad and Medad were considered true prophets (Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 15:19). According to the midrash, Moses had a problem with the number of elders that God had specified. There were twelve tribes and each tribe would want to have equal representation among the elders, but seventy is not equally divisible by twelve. Two tribes would only have five representative and the other ten would have six.
In attempting to solve the numerical problem, Moses instituted a lottery. Seventy-two pieces of paper were placed in a jar. Seventy pieces had the word “elder” written on them; two pieces were left blank. Moses chose six representatives from each of the twelve tribes and asked each of the seventy-two to draw a piece of paper from the jar. Only those who drew the word “elder” would be invited to join Moses in the Tent of Meeting.
Eldad and Medad were two of the seventy-two representatives chosen by Moses, but they withdrew from the lottery because they did not believe themselves to be worthy of the honor. The midrash says that, because of their modesty, they were deemed to be the most worthy of all the elders. God rewarded them with the greatest prophetic gift, allowing them to see events forty years into the future.
According to the Midrash, this is the reason why Joshua asked Moses to silence them. Eldad and Medad were the first to prophesy that Moses would die in the wilderness and that Joshua would be the one to bring the Israelites into the Land of Israel. It would not be the last time that someone tried to silence a prophet for telling the truth.
Who gets to speak for God? Who gets to play the prophet?
According to our tradition, it is not only the ones who have been elected and chosen by human beings. Sometimes, the voice of God has to come to us from outside of the chain of command. Sometimes, prophets need to be able to say things that are not so welcome by the powers that be. It takes leaders of true wisdom to listen to God’s voice coming from outside official channels. It takes leaders of true modesty to overcome the tendency to hear those words as a threat to their authority.
In Israel today, there is an Orthodox Rabbinate that is not listening. The challenge for them is to step back from the tendency to hear liberal Jewish voices as a threat. It is to recognize that, for a portion of the Jewish people, Reform and Conservative Judaism speaks with the ecstasy of Eldad and Medad. It is their challenge to remember that it is God, not human beings, who has the power to make each one of us into a prophet.
There is, of course, also a message for liberal Jews in this lesson. Our legitimacy depends upon our willingness to act with humility. It is too easy to see the struggle with the Orthodox Rabbinate only in political terms—a struggle that can only have winners and losers in a test of power. Like Eldad and Medad, we should find our greatest struggle in wrestling with ourselves and questioning our own worthiness.
It is through that struggle that we may find ourselves able to hear the voice of God, not from some human-appointed authority, but as a growing presence within our own lives.
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A Victory for Freedom of Religion in Israel
Beha'alotcha: The Light of the Menorah