Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing

B’HAALOTCHA 5777 Volunteer Shabbat


Volunteer Shabbat

As they say in Hollywood, “You just can’t make this stuff up!” There are some things in the Torah that could not have been written unless they actually happened. After seeing water stand like a wall at the Red Sea, receiving the Torah and witnessing a multitude of miracles, the Jewish people post this complaint (Num. 11:5): “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for free, along with the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.”

Don’t get me wrong, I like fish as much as the next guy. Fresh salmon or bronzini can make my day. But give me a break! The Jews were slaves in Egypt for crying out loud—free fish? You’ve got to be kidding me.

Moses sees all this and turns to Gd pleading (11:14-15): “I simply can’t carry this people by myself any longer. It’s too much for me. If this is what you expect of me, I beg You, please kill me (now) and let me no longer suffer any more my wretchedness.” It’s really hard working with Jews!

Gd hears the desperation in his voice, and realizes that He has to do something to lighten Moses’ burden, and so He instructs him to gather 70 elders and bring them to the Tent of Meeting, telling him (11:17): “I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you.”

And soon the Torah (11:26) informs us: “2 men remained behind in the camp, one named Eldad and the other named Medad: and yet the spirit of Gd rested upon them too…and they prophesied in the camp.” Joshua then ran to Moses telling him what happened. Joshua was upset and shouted, k’la-eym (stop them)! How does Moses respond (11:29)? “Are you worried about my honor? Would that all of Gd’s people be prophets.”

This is the beginning of a debate in Jewish life that has continued ever since. Joshua is upset, and rightly so. Here are 2 people who have no authorization—who did not receive an anointment or appointment by Gd, no ordination or smicha, no nothing—daring to claim that they have the right to prophecy? If they can get away with claiming to be prophets, who knows how many others may come forward and try to do the same? 

Moses urges Joshua not to be upset or aggravated. His wish is that all of Gd’s people strive to be prophets. As far as he’s concerned, it’s great for anyone who wishes to aspire to as much leadership as he can achieve. Who do you agree with?

There were times in Jewish history when people claimed leadership—even claiming to be prophets sent by Gd—and they turned out to be false prophets like Shabbatai Zevi—the false messiah of the 17th century. But there were others who came forward and volunteered to become the leaders of the Jewish people and they were accepted. Sometimes the voice of Joshua—the voice of suspicion—won, and sometimes the voice of Moses—the voice of trust—won.

There was a time when the Kohanim ruled over the Jewish people—at least in the realm of worship. They had special responsibilities and privileges and only through them could one bring offerings and approach Gd in worship. Then the Holy Temple was destroyed and the role of the Kohanim changed radically. The Rabbis became the leaders of the Jewish people. The Kohanim still retained a few special vestiges of the power and prestige like the courtesy of the 1st Aliyah or the honor of blessing the people on the holidays. They may have certain restrictions about going to the cemetery or about who they may marry; they may officiate at a pidyon haben; but that’s about all. The real power in Jewish life was transferred to the Sages after the Holy Temple fell.

I imagine that the Joshuas of that time must have complained saying: “How can you allow the Sages, who have no claim of birth to take over leadership?” And I imagine the Moseses must have responded: “Isn’t it better to have people in charge whose authority comes from their knowledge and not from their ancestry? And isn’t it good that the doors of leadership are open to all those who are willing to come and study and excel?”

The followers of Moses won that round. I’m glad that the doors of leadership were opened to all who wanted to come and study and that power was not restricted to those who had the right pedigree. What we needed was smart compassionate scholarship that could help us mine the Torah and create a guide to navigate the new reality of exile and diaspora.

The debate continued into more modern times. In 1904, a great revolution occurred in American Jewish life that very few people know about. Up until then, every synagogue in America had the same seating system. The rich sat up front; the middle class sat in the middle; and the poor sat in the back. Edna Ferber—early 20th century novelist and playwright—describes the seating arrangement in the synagogue where she grew up, in Appleton, Wisconsin. She writes: “In the rows nearest the pulpit sat the rich people, with their children and grandchildren. Then came the next richest and the middling well-to-do, and then the poorest.” This was a German shul because German Jews came to America 50 years before Eastern European Jews. And so she writes: “The last rows were reserved for the poorest of the poor, and for the strangers, and for the Russians.” 

Rabbi Leo Franklin, of Beth El in Detroit, in 1904 did something revolutionary. He announced that, not only on Shabbat but even on the High Holy Days, all the seats in the sanctuary would be available on a 1st-come, 1st-served basis. I can just imagine the Joshuas of his time protesting: “Of course the rich deserve special seating! After all where would this Temple be without them?”

The Moseses of that time must have said in response: “Of course the rich deserve our gratitude and honor. But we want to establish the principle that all are equal before Gd. Who is to say that the one who donates his time as a volunteer in the shul is not as precious as one who writes a check? And who is to say that the one who has a little and gives a lot is not more precious? Would you have voted with Joshua or with Moses, if you were on the board of that synagogue in Detroit?

The school of Joshua has a point. No shul can live without the generosity of those who can afford to give more, and surely they deserve recognition and gratitude for what they give. But on the other hand, no one should be made to feel that he or she is a 2nd-class person in the sanctuary of Gd. I think that I would have felt torn between the arguments of Joshua and Moses, but that, in the end, I would probably have voted with Moses. There’s some truth and validity on both sides. If you vote with Moses, you could bankrupt the shul. If you vote with Joshua, you could lose the point of what it means to be a shul. And therefore, it becomes the task of synagogue leaders to balance the truth on both sides.

We don’t have this debate in Shaarei Shamayim. If you didn’t know who the people with means or little means are before you came into shul, you couldn’t guess. Everyone who walks through these doors is treated with the same respect and dignity. And everyone volunteers to give of their time, efforts and resources to the extent they can. We are truly blessed. May Hashem bless us to grow and prosper. Amen!


Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

Congregation Shaarei Shamayim

1600 Mt. Mariah Rd.

Atlanta, GA 30329

Author of: Dancing With God

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1600 Mount Mariah
Atlanta, GA 30329

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