D’Var Torah By: Cantor Josh Breitzer

Towards the end of this week’s parashah, wandering in the wilderness is starting to take its toll on the Israelites. Moses and his siblings, Aaron and Miriam, are no exception. Numbers 11 describes a weary Moses begging God for additional layers of leadership, a request which is noticed by his older brother and sister. Numbers 12 begins with them gossiping about Moses, his wife, and wondering aloud whether the two of them shouldn’t be entrusted with more leadership opportunities.

Numbers 12:4 and the following verses depict God’s scolding response to their question. With their unique alliteration and cantillation, peh el-peh (“mouth to mouth,”) the initial words of Numbers 12:8 resound with possibilities that may help us better understand God’s relationship with Moses. I think they also provide a prescription for healing broken relationships.

Peh el peh adaber bo

umareh v’lo v’chidot

ut’munat Adonai yabit

umadua lo y’reitem

l’dabeir b’avdi v’Moshe.

פֶּ֣ה אֶל־פֶּ֞ה אֲדַבֶּר־בּ֗וֹ

וּמַרְאֶה֙ וְלֹ֣א בְחִידֹ֔ת

וּתְמֻנַ֥ת יְהֹוָ֖ה יַבִּ֑יט

וּמַדּ֙וּעַ֙ לֹ֣א יְרֵאתֶ֔ם

לְדַבֵּ֖ר בְּעַבְדִּ֥י בְמֹשֶֽׁה׃

“With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds GOD’s likeness. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!”

Our tradition assigns peh el-peh a relatively rare combination of tropes which cause the words to sound more pointed, more admonishing. But they also describe how, throughout the Torah, God and Moses converse in straightforward terms. To Aaron and Miriam, God waxes more poetically, using flowery language riddled with reproof. It is as if God is demonstrating a marked contrast in rapport and relationship: just as Aaron and Miriam spoke directly with each other about their younger brother, so too does God speak directly with Moses.

If vocalized differently, these words could be read as poh el-poh, or “here to here.” To me, this alternative reading calls out the importance of being mutually present in relationships. When God calls to Moses, to Abraham, to Adam, they all respond with, “hineini,” “I am here.” We have previously learned from Rabbi Jacobs (via the Kotzker rebbe) how Moses applies that fullness of presence to receiving the Torah on Sinai and later beholding God’s likeness.

When God calls out to Aaron and Miriam in Numbers 12:5, they do not respond with “hineini” – they just come out. How fully present were they? Were they trembling in fear and trepidation? Were they hanging their heads in shame? Or were they standing with their shoulders squared, chins jutted out in defiance, ready to accept the consequences of their somewhat slanderous conversation?

Today, we see how interpersonal exchanges via social media are often misconstrued and misinterpreted, resulting in serious, lasting consequences. I suggest this Torah portion is meant to teach us the value of speaking directly with each other. Conversing mouth-to-mouth, or, even better, face-to-face can help us understand each other much more plainly. It can even help us to discern each other’s innate humanity more clearly, remembering we are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine Image. The next time we need to show up, may we, along with Aaron and Miriam, learn to respond more like Moses.