by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Moses never wanted the job.
When God spoke out of the burning bush and assigned him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses tried to get out of it. He objected:
Hey! Lo ya-aminu me, and they will not listen to my voice, for they will say: Your god, God, did not appear. (Exodus 4:1)
Lo ya-aminu = They will not believe, they will not trust. Lo (לֹא) = not. Ya-aminu (יַאֲמִינוּ) = They will believe, be convinced by, put trust in, have faith in. (From the root aman, אמן, which is also the root of amen (אָמֵן) = a solemn statement of confirmation or acceptance. See last week’s post, Naso: Ordeal of Trust for the first use of “Amen” in the Torah.)
God gave Moses three miraculous signs to convince the Israelites that he really did speak for God. But Moses still tried to turn down the job. Finally God compromised by giving Moses a partner: his older brother Aaron, who had stayed in Egypt when Moses fled to Midian many decades before.
The arrangement was that God would speak to Moses, Moses would speak to Aaron, and Aaron would deal directly with the people. Moses accepted this arrangement—maybe because he had run out of excuses.
Moses and Aaron are still together in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“when you bring up”), in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. But their roles have changed. The big change came while the Israelites were camped at Mount Sinai, halfway between Egypt and the “promised land’ of Canaan. When they first arrived at Mount Sinai, the people trusted God. Sure, they had panicked a few times when there was a shortage of water or food, but each time Moses talked to God and God fixed the problem. So when they reached Mount Sinai, the people said:
Everything that God speaks we will do! And God said to Moses: Hey! I myself will come to you in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the people will listen when I speak with you, and also ya-aminu in you forever. (Exodus 19:9)
Alas, while Moses is secluded inside God’s cloud on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, the people feel abandoned and lose faith that Moses will return to them. They ask Aaron to make a god to lead them, now that Moses has disappeared.
If Aaron were trustworthy as Moses’ co-leader, he would have reminded them that God explicitly forbade them to make gold or silver idols. He might have redirected them toward making an acceptable offering to God. Instead, Aaron made the Golden Calf, and the Israelites had a wild party.
When Moses returned and questioned him about it, Aaron lied about his own role—
So I said to them: Who has gold? They took it off themselves and they gave it to me, and I threw it away into the fire, and out came this calf (Exodus 32:24)
—and slandered the Israelites—
You yourself know the people, that they are bad. (Exodus 32:22)
The Midrash Rabbah on the Song of Songs, a collection of commentary from the 8th century C.E., said that the two breasts of the woman in the song symbolize Moses and Aaron, who were full of the milk of Torah. But Aaron fails as a wet-nurse when he fails to set appropriate limits for the “children” of Israel, and instead gives them their golden calf—and then denies his own responsibility for their downfall.
God and Moses between them kill thousands of the guilty, but they let Aaron live. Later they make him the high priest: the chief technician in charge of conducting rituals, looking impressive, handling holy objects, and diagnosing skin diseases. But Moses is left as the people’s sole boss and spiritual leader.
He does his best to keep them encouraged and in line, but in this week’s Torah portion Moses finally cracks.
The people appear to be in good shape at the beginning of the book of Numbers. They are marching from Mount Sinai to the border of Canaan in battle formation, with their portable sanctuary and all its holy objects in the middle, so they know God is with them. They have water to drink and manna to eat.
Then suddenly they are overcome with craving.
They weep and say:
Who will feed us basar? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. But now nafsheinu are drying up; there is nothing except the manna before our eyes. (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:4-6)
basar (בָּשָׂר) = human flesh (skin and/or muscle); animal meat.
nafsheinu (נַפְשֵׁנוּ) = our souls, our lives, our throats, our appetites.
They are not actually hungry. They are disgusted with God’s manna and, according to many commentators who point out the double meaning of basar, with God’s laws restricting sex partners. Perhaps they are fed up with the whole religion. Or perhaps they have had their fill of spiritual experiences, long lists of rules, and the goal of taking over Canaan. They get cranky. They want a break for immediate physical pleasure.
Moses heard the people weeping in their family groups, each one at the entrance of its tent, and God’s anger flared very hot; and in the eyes of Moses it was bad. And Moses said to God: Why do You do bad to your servant, and why have I not found favor in your eyes, that you put the burden of all this people on me? Did I myself become pregnant with all this people, or did I myself give birth to them, that you say to me: Carry them in your bosom, like the omein carries the one who suckles, to the land that You swore to their forefathers? (Numbers 11:10-12)
omein (אֹמֵן) = guardian, substitute parent. (Literally, the reliable one, the dependable one; from the same root as ya-aminu and amen.)
Elsewhere in the Bible, an omein is a man in charge of bringing up a child; each of King Ahab’s underage children has an omein in the second book of Kings, and Mordecai is Esther’s omein in the book of Esther. The female form of this word, omenet, means wet-nurse or nanny. Moses imagines himself not just as a parent to the Israelites, but as their wet-nurse, too.
I am not able to carry all this people by myself alone, because they are too heavy for me! If thus You must do to me, please kill me altogether, if I have found favor in Your eyes, and don’t let me see my badness! (Numbers 11:14-15)
Moses has a hard enough time serving as the people’s sole spiritual leader and teaching them God’s directives. Being a nanny for thousands of ex-slaves is too much for him. e HeIf only they acted like mature adults, restraining their impulses and deferring immediate pleasure for the sake of higher goals! Instead, the people are like small children—as immature as if they are still nursing. (Children in ancient Israel nursed until they were about four years old.)
Moses cannot bear to be a single mother. He tells God he would rather die than continue to be their omein.
God tries to solve the problem by giving 70 elders some of Moses’ spirit of prophecy, so they can all help him. But in the rest of the book of Numbers, the elders prove insufficient to control the childish impulses of the Israelites. Either the elders are not mentioned, or in the case of Korach’s rebellion, they are part of the group that revolts and complains to Moses.
Have you ever been responsible for a small child who loses control and throws a tantrum? Rational explanations go right over their heads; all they can think about is the physical gratification they want right now, the comfort that their parent or babysitting is denying them. Back when that child was my son, I had to fight hard to stay calm until I could calm him down.
Small children are totally dependent on their caregivers. If they are to grow up into independent adults, rather than slaves, their omein or omenet must be totally dependable—emunah.
Yet all humans are imperfect, unable to rise successfully to every single challenge. I was not a perfect mother, but I did not give up, and now I am proud of my adult son.
Moses does not give up either, even though he did not give birth to the Israelites, nor ask for the job of being their nanny. When God lashes out at the people, Moses talks God out of God’s temper tantrum, and keeps everyone on the road to the future.
May everyone who is given responsibility for others find the fortitude to carry on. May we all be more like Moses than Aaron.
In next week’s Torah portion, the Israelite spies return from Canaan and ten out of twelve report that the land is full of fearsome giants. Look for my next blog post about how the people weep and refuse to go—because this time they do not ya-aminu God.