Moses’ complaint to God in this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha (Numbers 8:1-12:16), that he should not be tasked with nursing a people that he did not conceive or bear, has always struck me as an expression of the Torah’s negative view towards women’s bodies and the life giving and life sustaining functions they perform. If one were to take a second look one sees that these verses show that Moses’ denigration of the role that God does embrace is in fact one of the many things that makes Moses unfit as a leader and leads to Moses’ ultimate removal as a leader at the end of a 40 year sojourn, before reaching the goal of entering the Canaan, the land promised to the Israelites.
What is so disturbing to Moses about the notion that he might actually nurse the people? We might think his objection is that it is biologically implausible; however science shows this is in fact not the case. There are two stories in the Babylonian Talmud, in Chullin 113b and Shabbat 53b, that tell respectively of the milk of male goats and a widowed father who is able to nurse his son as he is without other options because of his poverty and inability to afford a wet nurse. Dr. Jeremy Brown, a physician who holds the position of Director of the Office of Emergency Care Research at the National Institutes of Health reviewed the science related to male lactation in connection with these passages. He concludes his discussion by saying that male lactation “is, at least in theory, an entirely natural event.” In fact the Hebrew word omen, a male nurse or nurturer, appears elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible — II Kings 10:1- 5; II Samuel 4:4 and Isaiah 49:23. The passage in Isaiah is in parallel with the word “y-n-k” that is certainly “to nurse.” Our own biblical texts do not find this possibility or phenomenon entirely out of the ordinary.
Furthermore, Moses’ protestation that he can’t physically do the labor of bearing and nurturing the people, in addition to being unable to do so is as specious as the prior claim of the Israelites that they ate all manner of delicious foods “for free” in Egypt (Numbers 11: 5). We know that the Israelites worked under hard labor, (the Torah uses the word be’farekh) in Egypt as described in Exodus 1:13. The notion that they were given anything “for free” while in Egypt is a non-starter when it comes to the truth of their experience. This is true of the complaint of Moses. He does not want to have the intimate connection that is often associated with pregnancy and nursing. Likewise his feelings of solitude. Moses’ father-in-law, who has given him advice in the past, is with him in the chapter before (Numbers 10:29); he remained present until he parted ways with the Israelites. After Moses airs his grievances, a council of seventy elders is created (Numbers 11:16) specifically in order that “they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone (Numbers 11: 17).
Although God speaks to Moses exclusively, Moses as communicator could have continued to collaborate with and include his siblings in decision making and instead opts to lead alone.
It is that very perception that he is alone that is a weakness in the leadership of Moses. In the very next chapter, both his sister Miriam and his brother Aaron complain to Moses about his wife in the plain sense of the text; the midrash in Sifrei Bamidbar 99 says that the nature of their complaint is that Moses has withdrawn sexually from his wife. Though this is a midrash and not explicit in the Biblical text, I believe the sense of his character here is accurate that Moses is withdrawing from connection with others, feeling isolated. Though God does justify Moses’ behavior, telling Miriam and Aaron that God speaks to Moses in a way different from the way God speaks to them (Numbers 12: 5-8) there still remains the challenge of the effectiveness of his style of leadership. Miriam and Aaron are complaining here not just about Moses’ wife but that their role as prophetic leaders is no longer wanted. Although God speaks to Moses exclusively, Moses as communicator could have continued to collaborate with and include his siblings in decision making and instead opts to lead alone.
This sense of isolation, not being able to either connect to or collaborate, from his wife to others who might enable Moses to lead appropriately is what dooms his leadership and ultimately gets him removed before he can complete the journey with the Israelites. Studies of which leadership styles have proven most effective – and garnered the best results – show that those countries that have leaders with styles that include “resilience, courage, flexibility, listening, empathy, collaboration, caring and recognition of collective contribution” as well as “the participation of everyone’s intelligence” do better at fighting the coronavirus than those led by autocratic leaders. In fact, one headline in the Atlantic, “Women aren’t better, strongmen are worse” could not be clearer. Other pieces in the New York Times, Forbes and Medical Express tell the same story of the success of leadership by women, based on traits around caring and collaboration, and drawing on the strengths of others.
Moses’ inability to draw on the resources of others – including his wife and siblings as well as the elders – led directly, in my mind, to his most egregious sin of striking the rock in Numbers 20:10-12.
Moses’ inability to draw on the resources of others – including his wife and siblings as well as the elders – led directly, in my mind, to his most egregious sin of striking the rock in Numbers 20:10-12. Moses’ rejection of the possibility that he might nurse the people, a role that is inextricably linked with nourishing a helpless baby while also fostering trust and a deep sense of attachment lends itself to question of the fitness, or lack thereof of strong leadership.
Moses’ explicit rejection of his ability to nurture, is, I believe, a precursor to his cursing at the people, calling them rebels and then striking the rock in Numbers 20:10-12. His inability to provide for them is a choice he makes: to avoid or reject what he has to do to help them, or to remind them of the positive things they have. The people are complaining about the food they are given, the manna in Numbers 11: 4-10. The taste itself is compared to something thick and delicious (Numbers 11:8), which the Talmud in Yoma 75a suggests is comparable to breast milk. “Rabbi Abbahu said: Shad (Numbers 11:8) means breast. Just as a baby tastes different flavors from the breast, so too with the manna, every time that the Jewish people ate the manna, they found in it many flavors, based on their preferences.” This passage highlights God in an explicitly feminine role, that of nursing mother and the food God sustains them with as what a mother is generally the one to provide. Thus Moses in negating the value of nursing and denying that he might be able to suckle the people is minimizing a role that God has embraced. If human actions are supposed to be in imitation of those of God, Moses is rejecting his own ability to imitate God.
Let us hope that the example of Moses can let more parts of the world learn to value the feminine leadership traits that are clearly shown to be so incredibly successful.
God is portrayed as both a mother and a nurse, while Moses refuses to be as well as to share his leadership collaboratively. And this is the point: Moses is denying feminine qualities of leadership in rejecting his role as a nursing father or the advice and leadership of those around him. Kathleen Gerson, an NYU sociologist told The Hill that a leader should be able to be both strong and capable of feeling, saying, “not only will society benefit, but so will men. Maybe then we can begin to open up the scripts for roles that leaders play, regardless of whether it’s a woman or a man or anything else.” In my reading of the text, Moses’ very refusal of feminine traits, starting with his rejection of having any desire to carry, nurse and bear the people that resulted in his being removed from his position. Let us hope that the example of Moses can let more parts of the world learn to value the feminine leadership traits that are clearly shown to be so incredibly successful.
Beth Kissileff is the co-editor of the forthcoming anthology, Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy (University of Pittsburgh Press, October 2020). She is also the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis: Beginnings and author of the novel Questioning Return and lives in Pittsburgh with her family.
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