וַיְהִ֤י הָעָם֙ כְּמִתְאֹ֣נְנִ֔ים רַ֖ע בְּאָזְנֵ֣י ה’ וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע ה’ וַיִּ֣חַר אַפּ֔וֹ וַתִּבְעַר־בָּם֙ אֵ֣שׁ ה’ וַתֹּ֖אכַל בִּקְצֵ֥ה הַֽמַּחֲנֶֽה׃
“The people took to complaining bitterly before Adonai. Adonai heard and was incensed: a fire of Adonai broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp.” — Numbers 11:1
As the 11th chapter of the book of Numbers begins, we read of the Israelites whining as they wander in the desert. Sick of eating the same divinely-given food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they demand meat. God is furious at them for their ingratitude; Moshe is equally furious, even begging God for death as a way to avoid dealing with this difficult bunch. These people have been liberated from slavery in Egypt—can’t they learn to follow directions and eat the food provided for them?!
As a solution to the aggrieved leader’s frustration, God tells Moshe to bring 70 elders outside the camp, where God will place the divine spirit upon them: With the aid of these 70 new prophets, Moshe will not have to carry the burden of the Israelites alone. But as he begins to gather these prophets-to-be, certain Israelites fail to follow directions: two of the elders remain in the camp, rather than position themselves around the Tent of Meeting, as instructed. These two men, Eldad and Medad, have defied the rules—and yet the spirit of God still rests on them. They begin to “speak in ecstasy,” sharing the word of God with the people.
Again faced with a recalcitrant and defiant people, Moshe could reasonably be expected to lash out in anger, as he did to the complaining Israelites just a few verses prior. And yet he responds to the rebellious elders with joy: “Would that all of God’s people were prophets, that God would put God’s spirit upon them!” Instead of tamping down their ecstatic behavior, Moshe encourages the prophetic voice of the people.
I think of these two responses when I consider the anger and frustration that have surfaced among the American people in the last three months. Starting in mid-April, thousands of people gathered in states throughout the country to express their impatience with the government-ordered shutdown of businesses and personal movement. Protesting outside of government offices and state buildings, the groups denounced leaders for the economic and social harm caused by valuing public health over personal liberty. Although many Americans shared in their frustration with stay-at-home orders, polls show that most people agreed that these mass gatherings were irresponsible, unwarranted, and likely to spread the coronavirus.
Just over a month later, much larger and more widespread protests broke out among a different group: people enraged by the brutal murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Again, people began to gather in mass numbers throughout the country, their anger exploding into powerful protests.
There is no doubt that these two sets of protests are vastly different. The first responded to a temporary inconvenience meant for the sake of public good; the second is an eruption of anger at decades of violence perpetrated by police officers against people of color. Even more, this set of protests responds to centuries of oppression against black Americans, beginning with the deplorable practice of slavery and continuing through Jim Crow, mass incarceration, redlining, and structural inequality at every level.
The public’s response to this second set of protests has also been different. Although some fear the immediate effects of the outpouring of anger, a majority of the American public supports the movement. After seeing the disturbing footage of a police officer kneeling on the neck of an unarmed black man, few Americans doubt the injustice of our systems.
Looking back at Moshe’s very different responses to two forms of provocation, it is clear why he rolled his eyes at the whining Israelites but lifted up the prophetic Eldad and Medad. In the former case, the Israelites were receiving everything they needed but were still unsatisfied; in the latter, the prophets may have made mistakes but were ultimately speaking the word of God.
The challenge, of course, is knowing what is the word of God and what is merely a human frustration. And yet this challenge isn’t as great as it may seem: as Rabbi Gordon Tucker teaches, all human beings have been given the gift of prophecy—via our moral intuition. Most of the time, we know what is right and what is wrong. We know that murder of innocent people and systemic injustice against a minority is wrong. We know that anger in the face of such inequality is justified. We can look at people shouting in the streets and know when the divine spirit rests upon them—and when they are merely like the Israelites complaining for lack of meat.
Sometimes, it is necessary to break the rules and speak truth to the people. We pray that God gives us the ability to see and recognize those moments. We pray for ears that are open to hearing the people who are most affected; we pray for guidance on how to step up and demand change to the rules when the system itself is broken. Would that we were all prophets, speaking up when our moral intuition demands it.