“Art thou jealous for my sake?” and Offense Kleptomania

When I put up my “Trolling for Topics” post a day or so ago, Rabbi Adar asked me to write about what part of the Torah is speaking to me right now. After some thought (and some searching through the Torah), I find in Numbers 11:27 – 11:29 this passage:

11:27 And there ran a young man, and told Moses, and said: “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”

11:28 And Joshua the son of Nun, the minister of Moses from his youth up, answered and said: “My lord Moses, shut them in.”

11:29 And Moses said unto him: “Art thou jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!”

I find this three-verse section of Parshah Beha’alotkha to be meaningful on several different levels.

First: we have an unnamed tattletale, running to tell Moses: “Hey, these guys Eldad and Medad are usurping your authority as the prophet of our people!” Second, we have Joshua the son of Nun taking this kid at his word and saying to Moses: “Yeah, you should shut them up and make them stop. Who do they think they are?”

And then we have Moses looking at Joshua like he’s grown a second head (work with me here, I’m envisioning this scene) and saying: “What, I should stop them from doing something that indicates they have G-d’s favor?”

I would think for most people, that’s the point of this passage: Moses saying “Hey, I wish all the people were prophets.” He’s pointing out that in this very rule-bound culture, this rule that the tattletale and Joshua think is being broken isn’t a rule that actually exists (much to the tattletale’s and Joshua’s chagrin, I’m sure). I can also envision him wishing that all the people being prophets were the case, if only to take some of the workload and distribute it around a bit.

But there’s one little line that I’m not sure many people notice, and that’s this one:

“Art thou jealous for my sake?”

Let’s look just at this part of this passage. Joshua’s concern seems to be “They’re usurping your place, Moses.” But by saying that, HE is usurping Moses’ place in an entirely different way, by being personally offended that anyone would dare do something that he would find offensive if he were Moses (or so Joshua apparently believes). He’s basically being offended for Moses, and by extension telling Moses “this is something you should be offended about,” instead of allowing Moses to decide whether or not he wants to be or needs to be offended about this. And Moses, bless him, calls him on it. “What, you think I can’t handle this? You think I need you to be angry on my behalf? You think I’m not capable of figuring out whether or not I need to be offended about this? You think I need you to speak for me?”

This very small part of this Torah passage speaks to me because I am, among many things, a social activist. In the not so far-off past, I have been known to do something which I have since labeled “offense kleptomania:” I find out that [insert minority that I’m not part of] has [trouble that I think I have the answer to], and I get outraged.

The problem is, many times, offense kleptomaniacs then get up on their soapboxes and start telling the people who are actually experiencing the trouble what they should do about it. Or, they claim to speak for the people who are experiencing the trouble, instead of allowing those folks to speak for themselves. In essence, offense kleptomaniacs try to take away both the autonomy and the voice of the people who are actually experiencing the problem – and many times do not even realize that that’s what they’re doing.

Now, being outraged by a trouble that someone who isn’t part of my group is suffering? That’s fine. That’s empathy. I would hope that non-Jews find the Holocaust just as horrifying as Jews do. I would hope that whites look at the situation that blacks often live in, in the ghettos, and are outraged by it. But the moment I move from being outraged about it to telling that person what to do about it, or speaking on their behalf without letting them speak for themselves? That’s over the line. That’s making an ass of myself. That’s offense kleptomania.

Now, offense kleptomaniacs often claim that they’re being allies with the oppressed or troubled person or group. It sounds great on the surface, but it doesn’t work so well when you look at it from the oppressed person’s point of view. There’s a difference between being an ally and being an overbearing git. One great example of this is what’s called “mansplaining,” when a man tells a woman (or a group of women) what they’re doing wrong and how they should change it in order to make the problem of sexism or misogyny go away, instead of hearing what the women are saying about the problem (and his role in it). I am thinking of the current #YesAllWomen firestorm that’s going on right now. As an ally, I can and should talk to other men, and tell them to quit derailing the conversation or redirecting it back to their own hurt feelings – to quit mansplaining. That’s me, as a member of the oppressing group, actively pushing away the ability to oppress and calling out anyone else who’s doing it. But as an ally, I do not get to tell women what they have to do, or how they have to do it, or why they have to do it. That’s not my place. It is not okay for me to be an offense kleptomaniac and say “Hey, when men treat women badly, that really offends me just like if I was a woman, so women, do this and this and that to fix it! Also, I’ll be a spokesman for women so that they don’t have to trouble their pretty little heads about it!” (I call this White Knight syndrome.)

Um, no. As a man, I do not have the right to be offended in this way. Women do. I can and should be offended that men make women anxious, nervous, scared, and uncomfortable, and I can and should call men out on it whenever they try to derail the conversation or mansplain. But the moment I say that women shouldn’t be afraid of ME because I’m not like that, or that it’s bigoted for them to assume a man does not have their best interests at heart? The moment I say that I’ll rescue women from this and solve all their problems for them? I’ve crossed the line. If I tell women to dress or act any differently, I’ve crossed the line. I’m being an offense kleptomaniac and usurping their right to be empowered decision-makers that have control over their own lives.

Another example of offense kleptomania are all these people who are not autistic (and often have no autistic people in their lives) who want to “raise autism awareness” and “find a cure.” If you talk to most adult autistics, we don’t want a cure. We just want to be supported so that we can live as normal a life as possible. But do you see any adult autistics on the board of any of these “Autism Crisis” groups? Not bloody likely. That’s why one of my mottoes is that Autism Speaks does not speak for me – even though they keep trying to speak over me, and keep trying to silence me and other neurodiversity advocates. They’re offense kleptomaniacs, plain and simple. They didn’t just cross the line; they left it way, way behind them and they probably don’t even know it’s there.

Joshua, too, crossed the line. Joshua was an offense kleptomaniac in this passage. You see, Joshua had no right to be jealous (offended) that Moses’ authority was supposedly being usurped by these two guys prophesying. Notice, too, that Joshua answered our unnamed tattletale for Moses, instead of letting Moses speak for himself, by demanding that Moses “do something” about the perceived problem. That was Moses’ decision, not Joshua’s, and Moses called him on it.

Now, we don’t get to know what Joshua’s reaction was to being called on it, but I do wonder. Did he try to mansplain to Moses why Joshua had every right to demand that Moses do something about this perceived problem? Did he listen and say “Okay, I’m sorry, I was over the line?” We don’t know. From his reaction, though, it sure looks like Joshua was offended because the authority figure he respected was being challenged, and he wasn’t good with that.

Notice, too, that Joshua made a mountain out of a molehill here. Instead of taking Moses’ big-picture view – wouldn’t it be great if G-d spoke directly to ALL the people? – he took a narrow view: A rule is being broken and that’s not okay (even though, as it turns out, there was no rule being broken). G-d calls us to look beyond our narrow view every time he commands us to welcome the stranger, doesn’t he? The narrow view is not Jewish. It’s human, certainly, but we’re expected to rise above that.

So in this short passage, G-d is calling on us to do several things:

1. You can be offended because something offensive is happening, but you cannot insert yourself into a situation where you have no place. Joshua did that (as did our unnamed tattletale) and Moses, fortunately, called them out on it and said “Not cool, guys.”

2. You can be offended because something offensive is happening, but unless you’re actually the target of the offensive thing, you may not speak for those who actually are offended. You may not take away their voice or their autonomy.

3. Take the broader view. Is this actually offensive, or are you making it bigger than it needs to be? What’s more important – rules, or human beings? Social standards, or people? Take a breath, chill out, and consider before you fly off the handle and make things worse.

Yeah. That’s what I have to say about that.



Filed under Drashot, Judaism

3 responses to ““Art thou jealous for my sake?” and Offense Kleptomania

  1. I love the term “offense kleptomaniac!” Very descriptive.

    I think that one reason it’s such a seductive failing is that it is easier than the alternatives. If I sign up to be an Autism Activist when I have no skin in the game, I get credit for being a good-deed-doer with relatively low risk. On the other hand, if I put myself out there as a person with a mental health history who has opinions about mental health issues, then I’m vulnerable to anyone who wants to use my history to discredit what I say.

    Allies are important, and it is possible to be a good ally. I think of being an ally as taking my privilege, and the goodies that go with it, and then saying to the people I want to support, “Here is what I have available. Let me know what you need, and I will do what I can.” When I talk about “the cause” to someone with the same privilege, it’s important for me to put my skin in the game. If I say, “People with autism need such-and-such” that’s a low risk, low usefulness item. If I say, “I am uncomfortable with the joke you just told,” that’s taking a risk, putting myself on the line.

    It’s good to be an ally, but being a useful ally requires a certain amount of humility. The sages make the point over and over again that humility was Moses’ strong point. He was a regular, fallible guy (he had a really bad temper) but he was happy for others to be in the limelight. I’m working right now on a sermon on Korach (Ch 17 in Numbers) who was in some ways the opposite of Moses: he wanted credit, he wanted power, and he was willing to be nasty to get it. Korach was swallowed by the earth along with his followers; the Torah’s pretty clear on what it thinks of arrogance.

    Thanks for giving me lots to think about!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Which Passage Speaks to You? | Coffee Shop Rabbi

  3. Pingback: Torah Study: The Trap of Literalism | Wrestling With God

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s