Standing in for Moshe

Hearing the right voice.

Tags: Chief Rabbi
Rabbi Dr. Dvir Ginsberg

Judaism Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

The formula seems quite simple. Gods teaches Moshe the commandments, and then Moshe, and only Moshe, transmits the contents to the Jewish nation. When looking through the Torah, without exception this is the system God chose to ensure a clear stream of communication from Him to the Jews.

In this week’s Torah portion, there is a brief solitary interruption in this method, with some serious consequences. 

To get a complete picture, one must look at the entire sequence of events leading to the new voice. Moshe asks for an army to avenge the plot of the Midianites. This army of twelve thousand, led by Pinchas, heads out to heed Moshe’s request. However, they do not kill the remaining Midianite women and children. Moshe becomes angry, questioning why the women and children were not killed as well. He then commands them to complete the task.

Immediately afterwards, the Torah turns to a very relevant commandment for that specific situation (Bamidbar 31:21-23):

“Eleazar the kohen said to the soldiers returning from battle, "This is the statute that the Lord commanded Moses. Only the gold, the silver, the copper, the iron, the tin, and the lead, whatever is used in fire you shall pass through fire and then it will be clean; it must, however, [also] be cleansed with sprinkling water, and whatever is not used in fire you shall pass through water.”

What stands out in these verses is not necessarily the command itself; rather, the person giving over the command. Elazar, not Moshe, delivers this new directive to the Jewish people. While he does reference God’s initial transmission of the command to Moshe, we do not hear Moshe speaking.

The Talmud criticizes the decision of Elazar to take the reins (Eiruvin 63a). It begins by stating an important halakha, whereby a student is not permitted to render decisions of Halakha (horaa – in this context, it will refer to a new idea, rather than a reference to an existing work) in front of his rabbi. The violation of this prohibition is considered quite serious. The Talmud proceeds to offer a litany of incidents and violators, including the following:

“R. Eliezer said: He [Elazar the Kohen] is deprived of his greatness — For it is said: And Eleazar the priest said unto the men of war . . . This is the statute of the law which the Lord hath commanded Moses; although he thus said to them, ‘He commanded my father's brother and not me’ he was nevertheless punished,’ as it is written: And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest and yet we do not find that Joshua ever needed his guidance”

It is quite the damning indictment of Elazar. 

Many of the commentators struggle with how to resolve the issue. Malbim offers one defense for the actions of Elazar. The prohibition of halakhic innovation before one’s rabbi is not absolute. If there is a potential act that people would violate without knowing the new idea, the student must give over the information, regardless of the presence of the rabbi. Therefore, one could posit that Elazar’s action were justified, as he was ensuring there would be no error committed by the Jewish nation.

Another defense is offered by Rashi and others. This was one of the three times Moshe got angry, leading to an inability to recall a specific commandment (characterized as a punishment to Moshe). The time to give the directive was right now. Elazar, noting this problem, stepped in to fill the void.

While these defenses are reasonable, one cannot ignore the words of the Talmud. Clearly, there was some flaw in Elazar’s actions, leading to a reduction in his greatness. What did he do wrong? 

One could expand the question a bit. What is the problem in general of a student engaging in horaa in front of his rabbi? If the student studies an area and develops an innovative idea, why not pass it along? After all, both student and rabbi are pursuing the understanding of Torah and its applications. They are both pursuing truth, so what harm could come from the student teaching people his idea?

Obviously, there must be an issue here beyond the mere transmission of information. The position of a rabbi, especially in the realm of being a decider and innovator, is complex. On one level, he is an individual dedicated to a life of learning Torah and unearthing its wisdom. Yet, on another level, he is a participant in the chain of the mesora, the tradition of Jewish halakha and concepts that can be traced back to the Revelation at Sinai. His ideas and insights impact that tradition in a weighty manner. The rabbi must approach every area of Torah with fear and trepidation, as the effects of his words are incalculable.

The people, when interacting with the rabbi, envision more than the individual. They see this person as the authentic representative of that very mesora they are beholden to. The relationship between the people and the rabbi is beyond practical; it is sacrosanct. When a student enters the scene and offers his own insights, the ideas themselves might be incredible. However, the student has now introduced a competing tradition, a parallel stream of mesora. The student must reflect the rabbi as much as possible. For the people to see a new path would harm their relationship to the rabbi, and that distortion would mean a compromise in the ability to transmit the ideas properly.

The situation with Moshe and Elazar reflects the above idea, and why it is being used as a paradigm example. Elazar’s motivations, based on the above interpretations, were not misguided. He saw a serious problem with the void in leadership, and stepped forward. As we see in the verse, he did not begin to introduce the halakha until he made it clear it came from Moshe via God.  Moshe’s name was intimately associated with the giving of the commandment.

However, it was not the voice of Moshe. This was the first instance of this (and all other) commandments being given to the Jewish people in the wilderness. The initial transmission meant more than the specific commandment in question; there was also the fact that the mesora was being established for the first time. To have a potential competing mesora, even with the original source being quoted, could be very damaging in this initial transmission.

Elazar was the Kohen Gadol, and he occupied an important position of authority. He was quoting Moshe to ensure everyone knew who the source was. All of these factors pointed to a minimization of any potential distortion. Ultimately, all of his efforts could not have prevented the problem that emerged due to his replacement of Moshe. 

One critical issue we can derive from this incident is the overall impact a rabbi’s ideas and concepts can have to others. A rabbi is not merely presenting his own thinking. The reality is he is a reflection of the mesora, and therefore he must weigh his words carefully. Unfortunately, this calculated type of thinking often is missing. Inflammatory statements and propositions whose logical consequences are patently absurd have been all too common. Rabbis at times use their position of authority as a battering ram rather than merely being a conduit of God’s infinite wisdom. The personal overtakes the objective.

The drive for humility must be at the forefront of the rabbi’s mind, with it a true understanding of his role and his relationship to the rest of the Jewish people.