Are Jews Adorable or Deplorable?
Parashat Beha’alotecha, Numbers 8:1–12:16
by Dr. Jeffrey Seif
The word “deplorable” was bantered about in recent political discourse, was it not?
The word comes to us by way of Latin and French employments, and harks to something or someone that invokes shock, fear or disgust. By contrast, the word “adorable,” harks to someone or something being extremely charming or appealing. To “adore” speaks of inspiring great affection and delight. “Adoration” worked its way from Latin to English to reference being worthy of divine worship. So what’s the point, Jeffrey? Is this an English lesson? Are you offering a word on European liturgical traditions and theology? Where are we going here?
I want to wrestle with the question whether the Hebrews noted in this week’s Torah portion are deplorable or adorable. In Parashat Beha’alotecha, the Hebrews start moving toward Canaan and that’s when the trouble starts. “Murmuring” is noted in 11:1. “Grumblers” with “cravings” prompt “wailing” in 11:4, resulting in God’s anger burning “hot” in 11:10, and Moses being sorely “troubled.” Chagrined and depressed by it all, Moses asks God to “kill me” in 11:15. Forget Moses’ depression, get depressed with me and note how things go from bad to worse. Moses goes on to take on dissenters from his own family. In 12:1–2, his sister Miriam drags Aaron into a family dispute. Miriam is openly disdainful of Moses’ wife—her sister-in-law. Aaron is drawn into the disdain and it, in turn, translates into their both taking on Moses’ decision-making and spiritual authority. “Has ADONAI spoken only through Moses?” they ask rhetorically: “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?”
This week’s Torah reading ends with God settling the family dispute in 12:1–16. Though that problem is solved then, Israel’s troubles are far from over. In chapters 13 and 14 doubting spies are going to send the population into a tailspin, and in chapter 16 pouting elites will attempt to usurp control of the community, forcing God to stave off an outright mutiny, and reassert Moses. So I ask you dear friends: Are the Bible’s Jews adorable or deplorable? If you’re a Jew, are you adorable or deplorable?
Once upon a time, I was a garden-variety drifty Jewish guy, stumbling along and trying to find his way in life. After I accepted Yeshua, I learned I was part of the “Chosen People,” and was eventually socialized into an understanding that I enjoyed a special status, as such. How can I put it? I was simply adorable, special. People in church looked at me differently from others. I liked that. Because I was Jewish, some thought I had special insights into God, that I knew the Scripture inside and out, and that I could be counted upon to give correct perspectives on biblical history, basic theology and the finer points of eschatology. I was part of an elite and special class of human beings: I was of the “Chosen People” and, as such, I was especially beloved of God and especially endowed by God.
Personally, I appreciate the affirmation, but there seems to be a chasm between the romantic view that people have of Jews in the modern world of today and the real-world experience of Jews in the world of biblical yesterday. Readers of Parashat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8–12) are taken back to yesterday’s world and, with me, are confronted with the fact that Hebrews aren’t all that good. That the situation doesn’t really improve is attested throughout the Hebrew Bible. The same God who leads Hebrews to Canaan in this week’s Torah portion will throw them out of Canaan in the Prophets and in the Writings. So I ask you dear friends: Are the Bible’s Jews adorable or deplorable?
For me, the lackluster and troubling performance of the Hebrews in this week’s portion is less about Jews than it is about humanity, on the whole. That there’s a problem with the entire human race is amply attested in the first few chapters of the Hebrew Bible. Jews are not singled out in Sacred Literature and chosen to demonstrate how great Jews are, much as Jews are chosen in order to demonstrate how great and kind God is.
Let’s revisit the Torah and note an adorable God at work in a deplorable world. In chapter 8 Levites are set apart to serve and intercede for wayward Israel (v. 14–16). In chapter 9, the mandate to celebrate God’s Passover—itself an attestation to a worthy God salvaging an unworthy people—is fixed, with provisions made for outsiders minded to celebrate it, so they can learn of God’s love through it (v. 14). Then in chapter 9:15–23, God presents as unworthy Israel’s guide. In chapter 10:9–10, trumpet sounds serve as a reminder of God’s greatness on their behalf. God’s faithfulness, despite their lack thereof, is further attested in 10:35, with a verse that’s heralded by Jews in synagogues today: “Arise, ADONAI! May your enemies be scattered.” My point is that there is beauty even in the ashes of Israel’s waywardness. In response to the grumblings in chapter 11, God gives assistance to the people and to Moses. In chapter 12, he comes to Moses’ aid and teaches his sister Miriam to mind her own business.
God works with the children of Israel, despite Israel’s failings. Unlike those who prefer casting aspersions on Jews—both the Jews of then and the Jews of now—God prefers demonstrating his grace toward humankind through the way he graciously acts toward the Hebrew people—then as now. For me, something in humanity is deplorable and something about God is adorable. The grace of God manifests so clearly in the Hebrew Bible, does it not?