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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Lonely at the Top

by Dr. Michelle Friedman, MD (Posted on June 20, 2024)
Topics: Behaalotecha, Sefer Bamidbar, Torah

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Chapter 11 of Parsahat Behaalotecha shocks the reader with a description of the nadir of Moshe Rabbenu’s life. Trouble starts with his flock, the newly freed former slaves grumbling right after their miraculous nighttime exodus. The peoples’ dissatisfaction worsens with a litany of nostalgic reminiscences about delicacies they enjoyed in Egypt and is followed by a pathetic barrage of complaints about the manna. The sound of B’nai Yisroel weeping over food pushes Moshe to the absolute low point of his life and he cries out to God:

Why have You done evil to your servant, and why have I not found favor in your eyes, to put the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive all this people, did I give birth to them, that You should say to me, ‘Bear them in your lap, as the guardian bears the infant,’ to the land that you swore to their fathers? From where shall I get meat to give to all this people when they weep to me, saying, ‘Give us meat that we may eat’? I alone cannot bear this people, for they are too heavy for me. And if thus You would do with me, kill me, pray, altogether, if I have found favor in Your eyes, and let me not see my evil fate.” (Numbers 11:11-15, Robert Alter translation)

What?! Moshe Rabbenu, the greatest of our prophets, the man so close to God that he asks to see God’s face, negates that special relationship with the Divine and demands a kind of assisted suicide? And to make matters more confusing, why is he framing his despair in the language of conception, birth and infant care?

Moshe is at his breaking point. Overwhelmed by the mantle of leadership usually conferred to men, Moshe reverts to the most basic of nurturant, woman-oriented relationships—carrying a child in utero, giving birth and breastfeeding. In imploring God with his own inability to carry out these classically female roles, Moshe underscores the unique circumstances of his own birth and infancy—how Shifra and Pua, the righteous midwives, protected women in labor, how his own mother Yocheved, hid him in a floating cradle and how his sister Miriam collaborated with Pharoah’s daughter to rescue him from the Nile and sustain him. Moshe is alone and bereft, distant from his earlier female saviors, estranged from his biological father, mortal enemies with the Pharoah/father of his adoptive family and most recently, abandoned by Yitro, the surrogate father whom he loves so deeply. Moshe is grieving the loss of the man he loves most in the world. Only a few verses earlier, in Numbers 10:29-31, Moshe and his father-in-law of many names—Yitro/Horeb/Reul—part company. Moshe pleads with Yitro to stay with him and help guide the fledgling nation but Yitro seems firm in his determination to return home. In desperation Moshe asks God to do the opposite of what all those life affirming women did years ago; put him out of his misery and kill him.

God’s reply, that Moshe should gather a council of elders, responds to the depths of Moshe’s loneliness. God understands that Moshe is suffering something much deeper than escalating annoyance and frustration with the incessant whining of the freshly liberated children of Israel. God’s consolation draws on Moshe’s earlier relationship with his father-in-law Yitro. God knows that upon Yitro’s observation early on in the journey out of Egypt that Moshe was drowning in administrative duties. Yitro gave Moshe sage management advice to set up a judicial system. God understands that humans need support and companionship and that sometimes it can be so lonely at the top that even a tzaddik like Moshe wants out. God understands that loneliness can be a killer.

Graced by God’s non-judgmental compassion and the practical support of seventy elders who will help shoulder his burdens, Moshe is fortified to go on and withstand immediate challenges—Eldad and Medad prophesizing among the people, Miriam’s bout with illness—Moshe will sustain many other assaults but his spirit never sinks again to the depth he reveals in this week’s parsha.

Loneliness doesn’t end in BaMidbar, the Book of Numbers. In fact, probably more people today suffer in silent, overburdened isolation than ever. The erosion of community and social bonds has been ascribed to multiple factors—dependence on technology, personal mobility leading to family dispersion and so much more. But reaching out, connecting and caring is as important today as it was during Moshe’s crisis in Behaalotecha . May we all be blessed with the wisdom and generosity of heart to do so.

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