The Torah of Criticism

Commentary on Parshat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1 – 12:16)

It is seven weeks since Passover, yet this Torah portion  reminds me of one of my favorite seder traditions, which our family adopted years ago from guests of Iranian descent. Before Dayenu, scallions are passed around the table, and then as we begin singing we proceed to whip our neighbors with the oversized green onions. (It’s really quite a scene – if you happen to be looking for a new addition to energize next year’s seder, this is a great option!) Some explain the custom as a reenactment of slavery, but I prefer connecting this practice to the words in Dayenu that express gratitude for manna in the desert. By whipping each other with scallions as we sing, we symbolically take our ancestors to task for having disparaged the manna and instead yearning for leeks and onions:  

“We remember the fish we would eat in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic.”  (Numbers 11:5)

Considering the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, the commentators famously ask — what do they mean when they claim to have eaten “for free?”   

According to Ramban, the Israelites’ claim was technically true — they did have access to free food. When, for example, the people worked on boats as fishermen, the overseers would collect the best fish they’d caught for the market, while smaller fish were eaten by the slaves.

Ibn Ezra, meanwhile, explains that the food was merely very cheap in Egypt, as if it were free.

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Finally, Rashi maintains that when the people referenced “freedom” in Egypt, what they meant was that they were free from new commandments they received in the desert.

Each commentator indicates something about what the people were “really” saying when they lodged their complaint. According to Ramban, the Israelites were technically being truthful but they neutralized the context, leaving out the full story of slavery. For Ibn Ezra, the people were embellishing — the food wasn’t free per se, just inexpensive. Finally, Rashi indicates that the “presenting problem” of the food wasn’t truly the issue — what was bothering the people were the commandments, and this was why they lashed out with superficial complaints.

Viewed together, the three interpretations create a sort of “leader’s manual” for analyzing and responding to critiques: Does the complaint offer literal truths while omitting crucial facts? Is the critic exaggerating the claim? Or is the external problem merely a cover for some deeper issue? For Moses to be a good leader, these commentaries suggest, he must be a discerning listener too. Otherwise the solution may be ineffective or, worse, result in the dismissal or even repression of legitimate concerns.

We see this Torah of criticism played out by Moses and Joshua later in the portion, after Moses gathers 70 elders to partake of the divine spirit and assist him. When Joshua hears that two elders — Eldad and Medad — remain afterwards in a state of prophecy, he calls for their incarceration:

My lord, Moses – imprison them!” (Number 11:28)

Perhaps Joshua sensed these prophets had a message that was critical of their leader. His instinct may have been protective, yet his proposed course of action is jarring, reminiscent of a repressive regime cracking down on dissent. Moses, on the other hand — demonstrating marked humility and an open mind — recognizes that their message, even if critical, is worth hearing. To that end, he tells Joshua that the ideal is for more voices, not fewer:

!וּמִ֨י יִתֵּ֜ן כָּל־עַ֤ם ה’ נְבִיאִ֔ים

“If only all the Lord’s people were prophets!

(Numbers 11:29)

This yearning continues to reverberate today. If the job of a prophet is to speak truth to power, bring legitimate concerns to the fore and hold leaders accountable, then “all the people” should ideally play a role. We are blessed to live in a country where freedom of the press grants an outlet for multiple viewpoints, yet we ought not take that freedom for granted. Attacks on news outlets by government leaders who are not following Moses’ Torah of criticism threaten to undermine the credibility of the media. These have become so commonplace in recent years that they risk seeming normal.

Find more commentaries on Parshat Beha’alotecha

Perhaps this is one more reason that whipping the scallions resonates — it signifies the need to snap out of complacency and remain vigilant in protecting our own freedoms and the rights of others. Moses calls upon us to lend our own voices where they are needed—not by utilizing alternative facts as suggested by Ramban’s commentary, the fake news alluded to by Ibn Ezra’s, or the external ad hominem attacks typical of Rashi’s, but informed rather by multiple viewpoints, empathy and humility.

Rabbi Micah Liben has served schools in the Schechter Day School Network as Rabbi in Residence, Jewish Life Coordinator and Director of Jewish Life and Learning.