This week’s reading describes the miracle of the Mahn (Manna), the miraculous bread which G-d gave to our ancestors to eat in the desert. The people said they were hungry, they complained, and they were given an open miracle in return — along with instructions. They were told to gather only what they needed for the day, except on the sixth day, when they were told to gather a double portion for the Sabbath. So almost everybody did exactly what they were told to do. But the Torah tells us that “they didn’t listen to Moses, and men left it over until morning, and it became wormy” [Ex. 16:25]. Who didn’t listen? The Medrash tells us: Dasan and Aviram.
You just have to ask, who were these guys? In modern language, what was their problem?
We first meet Dasan and Aviram much earlier. Moses goes out and sees an Egyptian beating a Jew, and in order to protect his brother from death, he kills the Egyptian. The next day, he finds Dasan and Aviram fighting with each other, and he says to the attacker, why are you hitting your friend?
He answers back, “who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you saying you’re going to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?” The Medrash says that what Moses found so frightening about this exchange is that there were wicked people, informers among the Jews.
Some people just aren’t satisfied with what they’ve got. That seems to be the premise of the midrash for Dasan and Aviram, according to Rabbi Menken. I have a tendency to give the newly freed slaves of the Egyptians a break because after centuries of servitude to a corrupt and idolatrous kingdom, they are suddenly thrust into a world they could hardly have imagined and after all, learning to wait for God’s provision isn’t something they really understood. But Dasan and Aviram are a different case. Midrash states that they questioned authority, not because they didn’t understand and desired to comprehend the will of God, but just because they could.
But they weren’t simply informers, they were troublemakers at every opportunity. They finally met their end during the rebellion of Korach, which they joined. Korach was jealous of Moses and Aharon for the honor they received. But if Korach had become the leader instead, Dasan and Aviram would still have been simply members of the tribe of Reuven. What did they stand to gain from getting involved in the argument?
They were obviously sincere to a certain degree, because they merited to be part of the Exodus. But they could not get over their desire to challenge authority, apparently simply for its own sake. Even on something so trivial as gathering extra Mahn, they couldn’t resist seeing if they could find a flaw in the orders Moses gave them. And that was the same trait that eventually led to their deaths in Korach’s rebellion.
But that’s not really relevant to us today, is it? I mean after all, we don’t find people today, apparently well-meaning in some way, but acting out, against authority, just “because,” do we? Or perhaps it is more common than ever.
Rabbi Menken’s last paragraph obviously communicates more than a little irony, and he points to last time we see such rebellion against authority from these two Reubenites, just because they were jealous and had a desire to rebel.
Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth — descendants of Reuben — to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” –Numbers 16:1-3 (JPS Tanakh)
The two same malcontents who insisted on disobeying Moses in regards to the manna are also backing up Korah in his opposition against Moses and Aaron. They are nothing if not persistent, but as the subsequent verses in this chapter and Rabbi Menken’s commentary tells us, they finally came to a bad end.
Unfortunately, as Rabbi Menken suggests, discontent within the community of faith isn’t exactly a rare occurrence. In fact, it seems to happen all the time. Jewish blogger Shmarya Rosenberg even suggests (incorrectly) that Jesus broke from the traditional sects of Judaism in the late Second Temple period, and formed his own branch because he too was rebelling against religious authority which, in that place and time, had become corrupt and laden with many superfluous, man-made rulings.
A student of one of Hillel’s students attacked these rabbis’ extremism: “You blind guides!” he said, “You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”
That student, fed up with the growing halakhic extremism that dominated Israel from the last few years of Hillel’s life until the Destruction, did what many other disgruntled Jews did with regard to the rabbis or to the Temple cult – they walked away and formed their own version of Judaism or joined one of the many sects that began at that time.
His sect, known in history as the Jerusalem Church, grew. An offshoot from it – one the student’s brother, who was then the sect’s leader, opposed – is Christianity.
This is a completely distorted view of Jesus and the early formation of Christianity, but it does illustrate that when the Messiah walked among his people as a man, there were many branches of Judaism in existence which often zealously disagreed with each other on many basic tenants of Jewish belief and practice.
Progressing only slightly forward into history, we are keenly aware that the Gentile disciples of the Jewish Messiah would eventually turn against their Jewish mentors and by the second and third centuries of the Common Era, would create a religion that was completely distinct from and excised of any traces of its Jewish origins. This could be viewed as a historical extension of a “Dasan and Aviram” type of rebellion against the Jewish authority which was established by God through the Messiah.
Why do we have people like this among us? As Rabbi Menken previously pointed out, it wasn’t as if Dasan and Aviram were completely evil and beyond redemption. After all, they merited leaving the “enthrallment” of Egypt along with the rest of the Israelites, so they couldn’t be “that bad,” could they? This example may tell us that the “rebels” in the community of faith today aren’t necessarily “all that bad” but then again they aren’t necessarily all that good, and can still be really annoying nudniks. Maybe they’re just people who will never be satisfied with anything that even slightly disagrees with their own personal desires.
In the past couple of days, the Messianic blogosphere has been alive with passionate discourse about one such “extremist nudnik.” In an opinion piece at the Huff Post called Eddie Long Is Not a King, Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D, an Associate Professor of Biblical Hebrew and Jewish and Christian Scripture, posts a commentary on the extremely controversial YouTube video of “troubled pastor” Eddie Long, of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta GA, being “apparently crowned king with the ritual use of a Jewish Torah scroll.” The real “nudnik” of this sad and sorry tale though, is a fellow named Ralph Messer, as Rev. Gafney states:
The unidentified man who, (in the YouTube video to which I had access he is identified subsequently as Ralph Messer), represents himself as a Jew. He may well be some sort of Messianic Jew, a person who claims Jewish heritage and recognizes Jesus as the Son of God, but who is not part of one of the major Jewish movements: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal. He does not, however, represent recognizable Jewish thought or practice in his (mis-) representations of the Torah and other Jewish sancta — or for that matter, New Testament and Christian biblical interpretation and theology.
I won’t present any more details about this story since I would end up just duplicating what’s been thoroughly covered in much more worthy blogs, such as the one maintained by Dr. Rabbi Michael Schiffman, however, I would like to suggest that one of the motivations for such bizarre and unBiblical behavior on the part of men like Long and Messer is the same motivation Dasan and Aviram had in rebelling against the authority of Moses, Aaron, and ultimately God. This desire lead them, like Nadab and Abihu, to offer, “unauthorized fire” or in this case, to misuse a holy sefer Torah for unholy purposes.
Some people just have a problem with legitimate authority and having such a problem, do what Korah did and rebel by attempting to recreate that authority within themselves. This is at the heart of the theological arguments that have supported supersessionism in the ancient and modern church. I can’t truly say that the Christian church stands in total opposition and rebellion against the authority of God, since it is abundantly obvious that God has been using His Christian church to perform His will for centuries. I can say that the seeds that were planted 2,000 years ago which resulted in the weed that opposed the Jerusalem Council and denied the Jewish foundations of the church, were born of rebellion, but it was perhaps a “necessary” rebellion (Romans 11) so that the Gentiles could find a place within their Messianic covenant relationship to God.
That doesn’t make it any less painful or harmful and I believe the time for that “rebellion” is coming to a close.
People like Long and Messer seem to be establishing themselves as “authorities” simply because they can draw a following and they can magnify themselves by creating the illusion that they are “anointed” by God. But what do the people who follow these “rebels” want? Perhaps they are looking for whatever the rest of us are searching for, too.
Where was the knowledgeable one who wove his spell to bring his familiarity with the Atman out of the sleep into the state of being awake, into the life, into every step of the way, into word and deed? Siddhartha knew many venerable Brahmans, chiefly his father, the pure one, the scholar, the most venerable one. His father was to be admired, quiet and noble were his manners, pure his life, wise his words, delicate and noble thoughts lived behind its brow – but even he, who knew so much, did he live in blissfulness, did he have peace, was he not also just a searching man, a thirsty man? Did he not, again and again, have to drink from holy sources, as a thirsty man, from the offerings, from the books, from the disputes of the Brahmans? Why did he, the irreproachable one, have to wash off sins every day, strive for a cleansing every day, over and over every day?
from the novel Siddhartha (1951 U.S. publication)
by Hermann Hesse
This may seem like an odd source to quote within a Christian (and tangentially Jewish) context, but take one giant step backward from your religion and consider what human beings are looking for in general. What does the praying Christian have in common with the Jewish man davening in a minyan or a Muslim kneeling on his prayer mat? What do they have in common with the Buddhist, the Wiccan, and the New Age mystic? Aren’t we all, in our many and diverse ways, seeking God, in whatever way we may conceive of Him (or “Her”)?
I’m not saying that each and every one of these religious paths is equal in its validity or potential to arrive at the true “destination” of God, but the need to strive for that destination is the same in each of us. Some of our paths are legitimate and worthy, and many, many other paths lead to dead ends, darkness, and many ghastly conclusions in the spiritual travels of such seekers.
There are paths that lead people who desire a sincere and simple relationship with God to people like Ralph Messer, more’s the pity. Messer took the true message found in our Bibles and twisted it into a horrible distortion of God, misusing and desecrating the holy Torah of the Jewish people in order to glorify a misguided and selfish man. There is a legitimate path that allows man to understand God through the revelation of Torah, but Messer chose not to take it, perhaps because he would have to become a humble student and not an exalted “teacher.”
Milton, in his classic Paradise Lost, allows the “character” Satan to utter the famous line, “It is better to rule in hell than to serve in Heaven.” That seems to sum up anyone who would usurp the authority of God and the Bible (and Torah) for their own purposes rather than submit to the legitimate authorities God has established and to humbly serve under them. Jesus taught the exact opposite (John 13:1-17) of Milton’s “adversary” when he washed the feet of his disciples and explained that “a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (v. 16). It is terrible to forget the words of the Master and to seek to rule over yourself and others, thinking you are better than those who came before you.
It is better to serve in Heaven than to rule in hell. Seek out those who are truly appointed by God and repudiate those who aren’t, so that the others who seek God just as you do, will be saved. Do not take such actions out of the desire to glorify yourself or whatever group or religion you serve but to glorify God only, lest you become like Dasan and Aviram and surrender to the temptation to serve only yourself. Should you feel that temptation within you, as if being who God made you to be isn’t good enough to satisfy you or Him, consider the parable of the Stonecutter by R’ Abraham Twerski MD. Perhaps it will add some perspective and even a hint of wisdom.