When Opposites Attack – Parashat BeHa’alotcha

When Opposites Attack – Parashat BeHa’alotcha

By Rabbi David Kasher, Senior Rabbinic Educator at Kevah

The boy came running out of the camp, and he looked panicked. Moses and Joshua, standing near the Tent of Meeting, turned to him, wondering what was wrong. He caught his breath and blurted out:

“Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” (Numbers 11:27)

אֶלְדָּד וּמֵידָד, מִתְנַבְּאִים בַּמַּחֲנֶה.

Now this was a very strange report for a number of reasons:

– First: It was unusual to have two people receiving prophecy at once. All accounts of prophecy we have seen so far have been delivered directly to one prophet.

– Second: Who are these people? We’ve never heard of these characters before, and now suddenly they are channeling a divine message?!

– Third: We’ve already got a prophet! Moses, the greatest of all the prophets, has now been leading the people and delivering them God’s message since the Book of Exodus. Why would we need two other people to come along and add something?

But the strangest thing about this episode is simply that we have no idea what these two men were saying. What was their prophecy? What were they telling the people that day in the camp?

The Talmud offers an intriguing suggestion:

Rav Nachman says: They were prophesying about the matter of Gog and Magog

רב נחמן אמר על עסקי גוג ומגוג

And who are Gog and Magog? The names first appear together in the Book of Ezekiel, and there it seems that Gog is a person, and Magog is the name of his country. But by the time we arrive at rabbinic literature, these are taken to be the names of two kings who will do battle at the End of Days. Some descriptions have them fighting each other, while others depict them uniting to destroy the Kingdom of Israel, in a great final war that will precede the messianic era.

So the legend of the War of Gog and Magog becomes an important image in Jewish (as well as Christian and Muslim) eschatology, a prediction of future catastrophe. But why does Rav Nachman believe that future battle was first revealed to Eldad and Medad in the desert? He engages in some fancy wordplay to connect the verses in Ezekiel back to our parsha. But the real linguistic connection between the two stories seems glaringly obvious: both pairs of names rhyme, and in a similar scheme.

Gog and Magog. Eldad and Medad. In both cases, the second name takes the last syllable of the first, and adds a mem (מ) sound to the beginning. That particular sound is significant because the letter mem, as a prefix in Hebrew, means “from.” So ‘Magog’ means ‘From Gog,’ and ‘Medad’ is ‘From Dad.’ Of course, in the first formulation of Gog and Magog, this was literally true: the person Gog came from the place Magog. But once they have come to represent two warring factions, the names indicate that one side has come from the other, and so both are, in some essential way, the same.

The prophetic message of Eldad and Medad, then, hinted to us by their names, is that the ultimate battle, the war to end all wars, will be played out by two, seemingly opposing violent forces that are actually drawn from the same source. What appear to be mortal enemies are, in fact, simply two sides of one larger phenomenon of destruction.

This motif of rhyming opposites is used again and again in Jewish literature at major crisis points in our national history. The ancient Kingdom of Israel is first broken apart after a rebellion against Rehoboam (רחבעם) by the troops of Jeroboam (ירבעם). And the ultimate destruction of Jerusalem, we are told in the Talmud, comes about through confusion over another pair of rhyming names:

The destruction of Jerusalem came about through Kamtza and Bar Kamtza.

A certain man had a friend, Kamtza, and an enemy, Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, Go and bring Kamtza. But the man went and brought Bar Kamtza.  (Gittin 55b)

אקמצא ובר קמצא חרוב ירושלים דההוא גברא דרחמיה קמצא ובעל דבביה בר קמצא עבדסעודתא אמר ליה לשמעיה זיל אייתי לי קמצא אזל אייתי ליה בר קמצא

The party host, who wanted to invite Kamtza, is outraged when Bar Kamtza shows up, and kicks him out. Bar Kamtza is so humiliated that, even though he himself is Jewish, he takes revenge on his host by reporting a Jewish rebellion to the Roman authorities, who eventually send Nero to destroy Jerusalem.

In this story, Bar Kamtza might literally mean, the son of Kamtza. Or it might more symbolically mean, “from Kamtza,” or “of Kamtza.” In other words, the man arbitrarily loved one thing, but hated another thing that was really made up of exactly the same material as the first. Kamtza and Bar Kamtza are like matter and antimatter, thesis and synthesis, light and shadow. To hate one and love the other is to lose sight of the essential similarity between the two, and thereby to engage in a useless and all-consuming kind of violence. The War of Gog and Magog, and all struggles for total annihilation, emerge from the clash of two, seemingly opposite extremes that are actually more alike than we realize.

Why does this matter? And why would the Torah spend time whimsically name-rhyming instead of just making her point directly?

It matters there, in the desert, because this journey will be filled with all sorts of terrible conflicts and, in most cases, both parties will descend from the same source. Just a chapter later, Moses will be accused of wrongdoing by his own siblings. The mutiny of Korach against Moses and Aaron will be led by their cousin and tribesman. Even the threat of curses from a foreign prophet are to come from a man who worships the same God as the Israelites – Bilaam is in many respects just like Moses, the Medad to his Eldad. In this landscape, we will soon see, enemies are often former friends, and twin siblings can produce warring tribes.

But it matters also out here, in the world beyond the desert, because we, too, go to war against people with whom we share a God. We denounce ideological extremists while proudly promoting the opposite extreme. We rage against one system of oppression by forcefully imposing our own value system on our oppressors.

Most of the time, however, we are blind to these ironies. We cannot see the similarities between our enemies and ourselves. Most of the time, we do not have the aid of a rhyme to call our attention to the ways we sound exactly like those whom we hate the most.

Eldad and Medad are sounding the echo of that rhyme out for us, to warn us of all the coming Gogs and Magogs of this world – those outside of our camp, and those within.

More from ParshaNut on Parshat BeHa’alotcha:



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