Behaalotecha — Challenging Authority

Stephen Richer
Challenging Authority
Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
June 1, 2010

In the book Start-Up Nation, Dan Senor and Saul Singer try to explain how Israel, “a country of 7.1 million, only 60 years old, surrounded by enemies, in a constant state of war since its founding, with no natural resources—produces more start-up companies than large, peaceful, and stable nations like Japan, China, India, Korea, Canada, and the UK”

One possible factor is Israeli’s irreverent attitude toward authority.  Instead of uncompromisingly accepting orders, Israelis are known to challenge and question, promoting a “come-up-with-your-own-way / do-it-yourself” culture that leads to entrepreneurialism.  Senor and Singer point to the Israeli military as a case in point—lower level Israeli officers often challenge and reconfigure the orders of their superior officers.  But the attitude extends as far back as Moses.

In this week’s Torah Portion, the Israeli people “were looking to complain … began to cry … and said, ‘Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.  But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at.’” (Numbers 11:1 – 11:5)

This displeases God—“The Lord heard and His anger flared” (Num. 11:1)—and when God is displeased with the Israelites, a conversation with Moses usually ensues.

But instead of apologizing to God on behalf of the Israelites, Moses challenges God.  “‘Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me?’” (Num. 11:11)

Challenging a figure of infinite power who had just seconds ago produced a fire that “consum[ed] the extremes of the [Israelite’s] camp” might not have seemed like the best idea, but Moses’ effort proves successful and lessens God’s anger.

This passage reads as an endorsement of the same type of irreverent attitude embodied in so many modern day Israeli soldiers.  Moses challenges the ultimate authority figure, and he is rewarded.  To further sanction such insubordination, God publicly praises Moses at the end of the Portion, “Not so is My servant Moses; he is faithful throughout My house.  With him I speak mouth to mouth; in a vision and not in idles, and he beholds the image of the Lord” (Num 12:7 – 12:8). Challenging authority, it would seem, is a good thing.

But how do we reconcile this with the rest of the Torah?  The five books generally read as prescriptions for rules and order.  Figures of authority, be they a parent or God, are to be respected and obeyed.

This is because the idea of challenging authority, like most concepts in the Torah, is a double-edged sword—the time, situation, place, and manner serve to divide challenges into positive challenges and negative challenges.  I’ve created a couple rules to begin distinguishing positive challenges:

1) Positive challenges are reasoned challenges, not mere complaints. As suggested in the beginning of the Portion, God does not look fondly on those who moan and groan without any suggestions for ways forward.  If a challenge to authority is presented, an alternative (presumably better) method should be proposed.

2) Positive challenges are made directly to the figure of authority. The portion also punishes the Israelites for squabbling amongst themselves, quietly undermining God’s authority.  If a challenge needs to be made, it should be made immediately, and it should be discussed directly with the authority figure.

3) Positive challenges are made with respect. When Moses challenges God, he does so in a deferent manner that still respects God’s authority—he doesn’t sit at the bottom of Sinai passive-aggressively creating idols; nor does he snivel in a “grass is always greener” manner about the food in Egypt versus God’s manna.  Similarly, the Fifth Commandment—“honor thy father and mother”—does not preclude us from occasionally challenging our parents, but issues can be raised in a respectful way that does not include, “I hate you Mom and Dad, and I hate all of your stupid rules.”

4) Positive challenges consider unintended consequences. Before a challenge is made, the positive challenger considers potential ramifications beyond the scope of the particular argument.  For instance, if a soldier were to make a meritorious challenge to a commander, it would be a negative challenge if the challenge provoked loss-of-faith or order that then jeopardized the larger mission.

This list isn’t exhaustive—it’s merely my attempt to acknowledge that there are right ways and wrong ways to challenge authority.  By establishing this, the Torah’s dichotomous nature—being a religion of respect for authority, but presenting Moses as one that occasionally challenged God—can be reconciled.

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