About midway through this week's parasha, Parashat Beha'alotkha, the plot of Sefer Bemidbar undergoes a wrenching shift. So far in the sefer, the narrative has been primarily concerned with PREPARATIONS for travel, such as the census (1:1-47), the organization of the camp (2:1-34), the unique status, counting, encampment organization and transporting-role of the levi'im (3:5-4:49), the nesi'im's provision of the means for transporting the mishkan and their subsequent sacrifices (7:1-89), the travel instructions of following the cloud (9:15-23), and finally the method of signaling the breaking of camp and coordinating movement (10:1-10). At this point the twenty day preparation ends (see 1:1 and 10:11) and a shift occurs. The Torah tells us that "...on the twentieth day of the second month, in the second year, the cloud rose from the tabernacle. Then the Jews traveled from the wilderness of Sinai, till the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paran." (10:11-12)
From this junction and on, Sefer Bemidbar is concerned with movement instead of arrangement, location rather than organization. Throughout the remainder of the sefer, the fundamental motifs include "nas'u" (traveling), and "vayachanu be-" (encamping - 11:35, 12:15, 20:22 etc.). Almost an entire chapter (33:1-49) is dedicated to listing the masa'ot, the forty years worth of journeys in the desert. While the sefer begins at Sinai (1:1), it ends in Arvot Moav (36:13), forty years and numerous destinations later. While Sefer Bemidbar, is rightfully known by Chazal as Sefer Pekudim, the book of counting, the latter part might well have been known as "sefer masa'ot" the book of travels. (See Abarbanel's commentary on chapter one.)
The latter half of Parashat Beha'alotkha not only presents a fundamental change in theme, but a notable shift in narrative tone and pace as well. While most of the text preceding 10:11 might best be classified formally as narrative rather than halakha, even those sections (see the sections discussed above) nevertheless possess the tone and tempo normally associated with the halakhic portions of the Torah. Put simply: things or events do not happen quickly. Better yet, things or events don't seem to really "happen" at all. Long sections of God's command of "hilkhot ha-machaneh," the laws of organization and preparation are followed by short accounts of fulfillment. Alternatively, short commands of "hilkhot ha-machaneh" are followed by long accounts of their fulfillment.
All of this changes as of the first "masa." From here on out the Torah presents a near dizzying array of occurrences and events, following one on the heels of the other. The action moves quickly through the following clearly distinct events throughout the remainder of Beha'alotkha:
1) the first "masa" (10:11-28)
2) a recap of Moshe's invitation and conversation with Chovev (10:29-32)
3) the complaint and punishment of the "mit'onnim"
4) the "asafsuf's" lament for meat and Egypt (11:4-10)
5) Moshe's lament to God (11:11-15)
6) God's response to both Moshe and the people - the promise of elders and meat (11:16-22-23)
7) the fulfillment of God's promised responses (11:23-35)
8) Miryam and Aharon's "speech" in regard to Moshe and the subsequent punishment of Miryam (12:1-16)
It is of course insufficient to just note the thematic and stylistic differences between pre-first masa and post-first masa Bemidbar or more pertinently pre-first masa and post-first masa Beha'alotkha. Having come upon the quickly moving "group" of events that closes out Beha'alotkha, we must examine their interrelationship as well - to paraphrase Chazal, the question of "ma inyan zeh eitzel zeh"?
One strategy is just to avoid the question. We might be tempted to claim that the linkage principle of post-first masa Beha'alotkha is nothing more than pure chronology. The Torah simply reports events in the order of their occurrence (see Ibn Ezra 11:1). However this seems inadequate in this case. A closer examination of the text indicates that a lot more is going on. Let us begin by first reorganizing the post-masa section into a structure rather than a laundry list of events. (It is advisable to read the text at this point). The text might be organized as follows:
1.0) the first "masa" (10:11-28), including a description of the order of travel (13-28).
1.1) a recap of Moshe's invitation and conversation with Chovev at the moment of the "masa" (10:29-32).
1.2) a resumption or recap of the first "masa" including the description of the ark traveling (10:33-36). (See Rashi, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra)
2.0) the complaints of the "am" and the subsequent consequences (11:1-35)
2.1) Nested within section 2.0 lies the strange events of the prophecy of Eldad and Meidad. (11:26-29)
3.0) Miryam and Aharon's "speech" regards Moshe and the subsequent punishment of Miryam (12:1-16)
Granted the division above, there are quite a few textual and thematic links between the apparently separate sections 2.0 and 3.0. In what we termed the second section the Torah describes God's reaction both to the mit'onenim and the demand for meat with some form of the phrase "vayechar af," symbolic of great anger (11:1,11:10 and 11:33). Likewise in section 3.0, in summation of God's conversation with Miryam and Aharon and as a preface to her punishment, the Torah utilizes the phrase "vayechar af"(12:9). Similarly, throughout section 2.0, a key term, the stem "ASF" (gather), appears numerous times. From the "asafsuf"(11:4), the erev rav / mixed multitude gathered in from Egypt, (see Rashi, Rashban, Ibn Ezra) to the twice gathered "slav" (11:32), the term appears seven times (11:4,16,22,24,30,32). Like the mixed multitude, the elders and the slav all gathered into, towards or around the "machaneh," Miryam of section 3.0 is also twice described as "gathered" (ASF) into the "machaneh" (12:14-15).
Furthermore, there appears to be a certain connection between the sins of the second and third sections. "Vayehi ha-am ke-mit'onenim...." (11:1). Whether one reads like Ramban, "And the people murmured of their suffering and pain.." or Rashi, "And the people sought to complain...", the sin involves some sort of speech. Whether actual bitter murmurings or just the desire to complain the sin involves the inchoate, or not fully verbalized level of speech. The second sin, the desire for meat, the rejection of the man, and the lament for the delicacies of Egypt (4-10) also involves speech. The Torah uses the term "vayivku," meaning crying, to describe their complaint (11:4,10,13). The speech sin is here no longer pre- verbal but rather post-verbal. Nevertheless, it is the crying lament of a child, a rudimentary form of speech, a point Moshe emphasizes with his analogy of birthing and nursing an infant (11:12). The sin of Miryam and Aharon, section three, constitutes the continuation of this progression. Their sin is of course lashon hara, slanderous speech, "Va-tedaber Miryam ve-Aharon..."(12:1). Here the speech-sin/complaint is fully verbal. It is full-fledged dibur, the speech of a prophet against another.
The speech act level progression helps reveal another developmental element. The sin begins at the "ketzei ha-machaneh," the edges of the encampment(11:1). It continues with the "asafsuf asher be-kirbo," the outsiders amidst them (11:4) and progresses quickly to "ha-am bokheh lemishpechotav ish le-petach ahalo," the entire nation organized as families crying at their tents (11:10). But it appears now that the contagion of speech-sin/complaint spreads even deeper than from the edge/outsiders to the encampment/families of Israel. The disease reaches the highest echelons and in section three infects even the leaders of Israel, those who camp near the mishkan.
In parallel to the links between sections two and three outlined above, there appears to be a criticatextual link between the apparently separate sections one and two. In section 1.1, the recap of Moshe's dialogue with Chovev at the moment of masa, the term "tov," good, appears five times. Moshe invites Chovev to join "and it will be good for you, since God has spoken good for Israel, "diber tov al yisrael" (10:29). After Chovev's first refusal, Moshe presses him and as an enticement offers "the good that God will do good unto us, so too we shall do good for you" (10:32). The fivefold "tov" of section 1.1 stands in direct contrast to one of the primary motifs of section two. The people are "kemit'onenim ra be-aznei Hashem" (11:1). Even translating as most commentaries do, "complaining/murmuring AND it was evil in the ears of God" (see Rashi, Ramban), the contrast of "tov" in 1.1 and "ra" in 2.0 is obvious. Furthermore, as Rashbam and Ramban both point out (11:1), they are complaining about the "bad" conditions, the pain and difficulty of the journey, the "ra" God has provided them.
In further contrast to section 1.1, Moshe views the situation of the people complaining at the doors of their tents as "ra," evil or illegitimate (11:10), and twice accuses God of having done "ra" to him by saddling him with the leadership of the Bnei Yisrael (11:11,15).
In sum, section one outlines the "good journey," founded in the "diber tov al yisrael" of God and embodied in the talk of good and vision of good that Moshe proposes to Chovev. Sections two and three constitute a reversal of this theme. Where as God had spoken "tov" of Israel, and Moshe "tov" of the journey/destination, the members of Israel, those peripheral and even eventually those central, speak "ra" of either the journey and by implication the destination and God, or of Moshe his servant. Whereas before Moshe had spoken of and seen nothing but "tov," now Moshe sees nothing but "ra" (11:11,16).
Finally, section one is not only attached to section three through the intermediary of section two as outlined above, but also through the issue of location. Section 1.0, in the second verse, (10:12) states that the cloud rested in "midbar paran," thereby implying that this was the stopping point of the first "masa." Later on in section 2.0 the Israelites are located in "Tav'eira" (11:3), "Kivrot Hata'ava"(11:33-34) and then "Chatserot"(11:35,12:16). Shockingly, the last verse of section three finds them once again in "midbar paran" (12:16). Most commentaries (see Ibn Ezra, Ramban 12:16) maintain that "midbar paran" is a general term covering a large area and the two usages of "midbar paran" refer to different locales within "midbar paran." Nevertheless it is striking that on the literary level, section three winds up the action in the same place that section one begins it, thereby framing the latter half of Beha'alotkha as one literary unit.
Alternatively, I would like to suggest that there is in fact only one place called "midbar paran." The Torah might be following a traditional klal u'prat, heading and details structure. First, (10:11-12) we are told the heading, that the first journey was to "midbar paran." Everything that follows, (10:13-12:16), and the eventual arrival in "midbar paran," are the details of that one conceptually linked first journey and its deterioration from "tov" to "ra." The latter half of Beha'alotkha is really but one extended first "masa."
So far, we have examined the literary and thematic unity of the latter part of Beha'alotkha, what I have maintained should be considered the real "First Masa." As pointed out above, the themes of the section involve the deterioration and failure of the "First Masa"(see Rashi 11:1, Ramban 10:35), the inability of the people to see and speak "tov," and the spread of the speech-sin/complaint contagion. However, at this point, at least two, if not many more difficulties remain.
I have always been bothered by the inclusion of the Eldad- Meidad story (11:26-29), dubbed above as section 2.1. The immediately preceding verses, the Torah's report of the prophecy of the seventy elders (11:24-5), constitutes a response to Moshe's lament of not being able to go on alone (11:14). But this should be sufficient to make the point that God responded to Moshe and to explicate the method of God's response. What is added by telling us that Eldad and Meidad remained behind and prophesied in the camp? The fact that the event occurred chronologically right after, if not simultaneously with the prophecy of the seventy elders is seemingly an insufficient rationale to include the prophecy of Eldad and Meidad. Not everything that occurs is mentioned in the Torah.
Secondly, on a more troubling note, throughout much of our expanded "First Masa," the statements, responses and actions of Moshe seem, for lack of a better term, out of character. Let us take a careful look at Moshe's lament to God (11:11-15) upon seeing the people crying at the doors of their tents. The section is perfectly balanced. Moshe begins by asking why (i) God has done evil ("harei'ota) to his servant; (ii) why Moshe has not found favor in God's eyes ("matzati chein be-einekha"); and (iii) then complains of the burden, ("masa") that God has placed upon him. In concluding his complaint Moshe reverses the order and pleads for the negation of each statement. Moshe states (i) that he cannot bear the burden ("laseit") of the people; and (ii) then pleads for death if he has found favor in God's eyes. Finally he closes with a plea not to see the evil that has befallen him ("al er'eh be-ra'ati"). In contrast to the perfect balance of his poetry, Moshe's mood seems one of anguish and despair. Moshe laments his evil lot, complains he has not found favor in God's eyes, claims he cannot bear leading the people anymore and most strikingly requests his own death.
The problem is that this is not the Moshe we are familiar with from Sefer Shemot. For example, just a year previously, when the people complained of the desert conditions and of leaving Egypt (Shemot, 17:1-7), Moshe responded forcefully to the people, reproving them for striving with him ("ma terivun imadi"), and for testing God, ("tenaseh et Hashem"). In Beha'alotkha, Moshe never speaks to the people, rather he stands and watches, "u-be'einei Moshe ra" (11:10) and then laments his fate to God. Similarly, in the aftermath of the cheit ha'egel (Shemot 32:30-32) Moshe offers a stringent reprove to the people, that they have sinned a great sin, and then returns to his conversation with God. At that point, Moshe demands forgiveness for the Jewish people, and if not, demands that God take his life ("mecheini na misifrekha"). Moshe puts his life on the line on behalf of the Jewish people. In Beha'alotkha, Moshe invites death not on behalf of the Jewish people but to escape having anything to do with them (11:15). What has happened to Moshe?
Let us return to section 1.1, Moshe's invitation to Chovev (10:29-31). Most commentaries (see Rashi, Rashbam, Ramban) identify Chovev as Yitro. After all, the Torah refers to him as "choten Moshe," the father in law of Moshe. Furthermore, as Ibn Ezra points out, this interpretation receives support from the fact that Chovev "knew the encampment in the desert" (10:31) and Yitro had found Israel encamped in the desert (Shemot, 18:5). Finally, Moshe tells Chovev "vehayita lanu le-einayim" (10:31). Rashbam (see Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban in contrast) interprets "vehayita" as referring to some past service and le-einayim, as eyes, as referring to perceptive advice. The phrase in fact refers to the second half of the Yitro narrative (18:13-27) in which Yitro perceptively advises Moshe not to bear the burdens of judging the people by himself, for it is too heavy, "ki kaved mimkha ha-davar lo tukhal as'hu l'vadekha" (18:18). As is well known, Yitro suggests the appointment of officers and judges who will help Moshe bear the burden. In Yitro's words "venas'u itakh," and they will carry/bear with you (18:22). Hence the fact that both Chovev and Yitro are perceptive advisors further supports the Chovev-Yitro identification.
Granted that Chovev-Yitro refuses Moshe's invitation and returns to his b(see Shemot, 18:27), Moshe's lament (11:11- 15) appears in a whole new light. He complains of the "masa," burden of the people(11:11), utilizes the nursing/carrying image of "sa'eihu becheikekha ka'asher yisa ha'omen" (11:12) and concludes that "lo ukhal anokhi levadi la'seit et kol ha-am hazeh ki kaved mimeni," I cannot carry the people alone since they are too heavy (11:14), a near exact parallel to what Yitro had warned of (Shemot 18:18). The exact issues of heaviness, burden, leadership capability and aloneness that Yitro had raised now dominate Moshe's thinking. We might suggest that the loss of his father in-law, his perceptive political advisor and leadership mentor has borne a heavy toll on Moshe. Once again he feels himself incapable of leading the people. Metaphorically, he stands once again at the burning bush, where Moshe had stated "who am I...." (Shemot, 3:11).
In addition, in analyzing the transition from section 1.1 to section 2.0 and the anguished Moshe of section 2.0, there is more to it than just noting Moshe's personal loss of Yitro and the triggering of Moshe's feelings of leadership inadequacy. As pointed out above, the move from 1.1 to 2.0 involves the failure of the "good journey," the move from the "diber tov al yisrael" of God and the talk of "tov" and vision of "tov" that Moshe presents to Chovev-Yitro, to the perception of "ra" and speech-sin by the people. Already in the very first verse of section two (11:1), the people complain and God's wrath burns against them. From Moshe's perspective, this pattern should have already been left far behind, back in Sefer Shemot, before the revelation at Sinai, before the forgiveness for the cheit ha-egel, before the hashra'at ha-shekhina embodied in the mishkan. The "good journey" in, which the people march quickly into the land, begins to fail immediately and quickly metastasizes into an all too ominous pattern of failure, sin and punishment. So too Moshe's vision of good and talk of good, his confident optimism, quickly evaporates. Given the failure of his hopes and expectations, he sees nothing but "ra" (11:10,11,15) and laments his leadership and very existence (11:11-15).
This intra-"First Masa" picture of the persona of Moshe, of his susceptibility to the loss of his personal advisor and of his hopes, of his all too human frailties, develops further as the narrative progresses. In response to God's plan to provide the "am" with a months worth of meat, Moshe states that there are six hundred thousand people and "ha-tzon u-bakar yishachet lahem u-matza lahem..." (11:21-22). While Moshe's comment may be read as an expression of amazement at God's plan (Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Ramban), Rashi quotes the position of Akiva that interprets the verse as an expression of disbelief on Moshe's part and a querying of God's capabilities. It seems that perhaps the anguished and despairing Moshe of the "First Masa" is not completely immune to the spread of the speech-sin disease.
The prophecy of the seventy elders (11:24-25) furthers the development regards Moshe. From the beginning of Shemot and on, the Torah rarely attributes prophecy to anyone but Moshe (see Vayikra 10:8 for a notable exception). But suddenly, there are seventy new prophets in Israel. While intended to help bolster Moshe's morale and to ease the burdens of leadership (11:16-17), the new prophets might well have the effect of undercutting Moshe's status as the leader, as the one granted the unique privilege of hearing the voice of God. In the context of the "First Masa" and perhaps in the eyes of the people, Moshe seems all too human and his talent for prophecy all too common.
This is of course the exact perception embodied in Miryam and Aharon's speech against Moshe (12:1-2). Miryam speaks ill of Moshe "al odot ha-isha kushit," regards some human foible of Moshe's concerning the Kushite woman he had married. From Miryam's perspective, Moshe cannot hide behind his unique status as a prophet. After all "halo gam banu diber," "God has spoken with us as well" (12:2).
Reading the "First Masa" as a kind of extended discourse on Moshe's humanity and the status of his leadership brings us full circle to the perplexing prophecy of Eldad and Meidad. The text informs us of nothing more than that "they prophesied in the camp" (11:26). They had not gathered around the tent like the other elders. What so disturbed Yehoshua and aroused his zealousness? The answer is in fact quite obvious. As Ramban (11:26) points out even if one assumes that the content of their prophecy was itself harmless, the very act of not gathering around the tent as Moshe had ordered, of prophesying not under the supervision and tutelage of "the father of prophets," constitutes an undercutting of Moshe's unique status and leadership. It is a statement of independence and equality. Yehoshua was zealous for the honor, status and leadership of his teacher.
But here Moshe's reaction is unique. Rather than mirror Yehoshua's zealousness, Moshe is humble and self-effacing. Rather than demanding the silence of Eldad and Meidad, Moshe offers the wistful hope that all the people could be prophets, with the spirit of God resting upon them (11:29). Moshe is unconcerned with personal status and personal honor. Simply put, Moshe is unique.
Seen this way, the story of Eldad and Meidad, constitutes a turning point. Until now the "First Masa" has portrayed Moshe as subject to human personality traits and described situations that might undercut his unique status and leadership. From this point on, the Torah counters and emphasizes the uniqueness of Moshe. Like his reaction to the prophecy of Eldad and Meidad, his reaction to the speech of Miryam and Aharon is unique. As the Torah succinctly states "And the man Moshe was humbler than all other men" (12:3). Although a man, he is different than others. Finally, God himself in chastising Miryam and Aharon states that although many are prophets, there are no prophets like Moshe, "peh el peh adaber bo" (12:7). With Moshe, God speaks directly, without intermediaries, in intimate relation.
The latter half of Beha'alotkha, the "First Masa," is not only an account of that first journey, the speech-sin/complaint of the people, its spread, the inability of the people to see and speak "tov," the failure of the journey etc., but is also a story about Moshe, his humanity, his despair and anguish, his humbleness and his prophecy. The same Moshe who spent forty days on the mountain with God, the same Moshe whose face shone with the light of divine spirituality (Shemot, 34:29), this same Moshe suffers despair from the loss of Yitro and the dissolution of his vision of the journey. This same "frail" Moshe is humbler than all men and uniquely intimate with God. Moshe's humanity and spirituality are not mutually exclusive. In fact it seems that perhaps the "First Masa" teaches us that Moshe's type of humanity lies at the heart of his spirituality.
To conclude, I have tried to show that the latter half of Beha'alotkha constitutes a coherent single unit, the "First Masa." As such, it stands at a unique juncture in Sefer Bemidbar and has much to teach us about the rest of "sefer masa'ot" and by implication the forty years of travel in the desert. It constitutes a kind of typology of "masa." After all, are not other parts of Bemidbar the story of the people's inability to see "tov" and their complaints against God? Are not other parts of Bemidbar about the power of speech-sin/complaint?
Finally, and most importantly, when we think of the years in the desert and the events of the remainder of Bemidbar, we must think of Moshe Rabeinu, his unique humanity and yet, his incandescent spirituality.
Note: While the analysis of Moshe is my own, it draws deeply from sichot heard over the years from mori ve-rabi Harav Aharon Lichtenstein. Likewise, while the textual analysis is my own, it draws deeply from the method learnt from my first teacher in Tanakh, R. Menachem Leibtag.
Questions for Further Study.
1) Commenting on the "simaniyot," the inverted "nun"s that bracket the verregards the first journey of "And when the ark traveled..." (10:35- 36), the Gemara (Shabbat 116) maintains that these verses constitute a separate sefer. How might this relate to this shiur?
2) Compare the complaints of the people in our parasha with Shemot 15:22-17:7. Are they similar or different?
3) Take a careful look at Shemot 12:38. How does this interrelate with our parasha? See Rashi and Ramban Beha'alotkha.
4) If Chovev is not Yitro, who is he? Take a look at Ibn Ezra. What is the role of section 1.1 according to Ibn Ezra?