Between the Lines—B'midbar

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Numbers Rabbah 1:3

‫ד״א וידבר ה׳ אל משה במדבר סיני עד שלא עמד אהל מועד דבר עמו בסנה שנאמר (שמות ג) ויקרא אליו ה׳ אלהים מתוך הסנה ואח״כ (שם יב) ויאמר ה׳ אל משה ואל אהרן בארץ מצרים לאמר ודיבר עמו במדין שנאמר (שם ד) ויאמר ה׳ אל משה במדין ודיבר עמו בסיני שנא׳ וידבר ה׳ אל משה במדבר סיני לאמר וכיון שעמד אהל מועד אמר יפה הוא הצניעות שנא׳ (מיכה ו) והצנע לכת עם אלהיך הרי הוא מדבר עמו באהל מועד

Another exposition of the verse, the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting . . . (Num. 1:1). Before the Tent of Meeting was erected, [God] spoke with him from the bush, as it is said, God called to him out of the bush . . . (Exod. 3:4). And afterwards, The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt . . . (Exod. 12:1). [God] also spoke with him in Midian, as it is said, The LORD said to Moses in Midian . . . (Exod. 4:19). At Sinai also [God] spoke with him, as it is said, The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai . . . (Lev. 25:1).

As soon as the Tent of Meeting was erected, God thought, "Modesty is a beautiful thing," as it is said, [What does the LORD require of you: Only to do justice, to love goodness,] and to walk modestly with your God (Mic. 6:8). [Henceforth,] He would speak with [Moses] in the Tent of Meeting.

On this Shabbat preceding Shavu'ot, when we will celebrate z'man matan Torah-teinu ("the time of the giving/receiving of our Torah"), let us pause before the holiday to consider the narrative transition illuminated in the midrash above. The change in location for dialogue between God and Moses, from "outside" to the enclosed setting of the Tent of Meeting, also highlights a distinction we find in the way we share information today. I personally find resonance and irony in this midrash for my own relationship with Torah learning, especially regarding this weekly column, in the questions it raises about modesty in our time.

Moses first becomes "Moshe Rabbeinu" ("Moses our teacher") in our tradition because of his public role as the conduit for God's Torah, conveying the divine commands to the people after communing with God on Mount Sinai. The second section of the midrash interprets the first verse of Numbers as a turning point for Moses, as the Tent of Meeting provides him a place for intimacy and private communication with God. Micah's prophetic pronouncement about modesty supports the notion of Moses leading by example as "a very humble man, more so than any man on earth" (Num. 12:3).

In teaching this midrash, a tension arises between my own private and public roles as a rabbi. This column largely represents the fruits of my weekly learning with Rabbi Abigail Treu. We study together via phone and email every week to generate this commentary. Our private conversations produce ideas that we then share publicly with myriad others over the Internet. In many ways, we have taken Moses's path in reverse, as our training at JTS and this column have provided opportunities for one-on-one interaction through Torah in order for us to share that wisdom with a much wider audience.

I share this background at the risk of betraying Moses's example of modesty and humility. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, however, perhaps our use of social media to teach Torah requires, at times, this kind of disclosure in order to engage our readers in dialogue about these sacred texts. Accordingly, please respond to anshugerman@jtsa.edu with feedback on this column or the series.