The Crises

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
 
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In memory of Zvi Tyberg z”l
On his 21st yahrzeit which falls on 12 Sivan
By Shulamit Tyberg Isaacs
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I. The Fault Line – Amalek’s Second Attack
 
At first glance, the fault line in Parashat Beha'alotekha between ideal and reality seems to pass through Tav'era and Kivrot Ha-Ta'ava, from the beginning of the account of the sins of the people:
 
And the people were as murmurers, speaking evil in the ears of the Lord. (11:1)
 
However, upon closer examination – and as Chazal read the parasha – the first fault line appears immediately after "And they set forward" (10:28) in the previous chapter.
 
That chapter records a short and surprising conversation between Moshe and "Chovav the son of Reuel the Midyanite, Moshe's father-in-law" (10:29-32). Moshe entreaties Chovav: "Leave us not, I pray you," because Chovav was very familiar with the passageways through the wilderness: "You shall be to us instead of eyes."
 
What is happening here? Could Moshe not rely on the cloud? Did something unexpected happen?
 
It may be suggested that the Torah (like Halakha) obligates human effort,[1] and it is this principle that Moshe comes to teach us here. But although this is true in many contexts, in our context it is impossible, because of what is stated in the continuation.
 
With bated breath we continue to read:
 
And they set forward from the mount of the Lord three days' journey, and the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them three-day's journey to seek out a resting-place for them. And the cloud of the Lord was over them by day, when they set forward from the camp. (10:33-34)
 
This description is the very opposite of all that we read in preparation for the journey and embarking on it. Suddenly, everything has changed. The cloud is not leading the journey, and the ark is no longer in the midst of the camps! The ark has begun to lead (as in Yehoshua 3, at the time of the crossing of the Jordan) and is seeking out a resting- place,[2] whereas the cloud is protecting the people rather than guiding them on their journey. What has happened?
 
Chazal understood that already here Israel suffered a "first punishment." Based on a careful examination of the wording of the Torah, Chazal understand why this happened: "'And they set forward from the mount of the Lord' – they turned away from God." In other words, the people did not set forward out of a desire to reach the land of their forefathers; rather, they ran away from the mount of the Lord after a year of receiving the Torah, a burden that was too heavy for them. Chazal, however, did not explain what happened at that "first punishment."[3]
 
As a Jew and as an Israeli, I feel obligated to understand what happened, and I leave to God the question why it happened.
 
In my opinion, Amalek, who fought against Israel at Refidim close to Chorev,[4] attacked them once again when they left on their journey from Mount Chorev, and the festive journey, in accordance with the standards and with the ark "in the midst of the camps, as they encamp, so shall they set forward"[5] was thrown into utter confusion. Even if this was "the ark that went out to war," and not the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies,[6] the very appearance of the "ark of the covenant of the Lord," which had not been previously mentioned (or the appearance of the previously mentioned ark with a different place and function) points to the very opposite of what had been planned and to a festive parade that turned into a war!
 
I find support for this proposal in the parallel between Yitro and Chovav. The latter is the name mentioned in the story of Yitro, who knew how to find Moshe and the children of Israel after the first battle against Amelek ("forasmuch as you know how we are to encamp in the wilderness"; 10:11). Similarly "Chovav the son of Reuel[7] the Midyanite, Moshe's father-in-law" served as "eyes" for Moshe and for Israel after the punishment, and the ark that had gone out to war led them on a "three-day's journey," to seek out a place to rest after the unexpected battle. 
 
The main proof of this surprise attack is found in the song of prayer for the ark that goes out to war:
 
Rise up, O Lord, and let Your enemies be scattered; and let them that hate You flee before You. (10:35)
 
Afterwards, the ark returns to rest with "the ten thousands of the families of Israel" (10:35-36), rest that concludes the chapter dealing with the journey!
 
This is why Chazal said that the section of "And it came to pass, when the ark set forward" is "an important book on its own,"[8] and, according to another opinion, "This is not its place, and the Holy One, blessed be He, arranged for them marks" (the inverted nuns, which serve as parenthesis) in order "to separate between one punishment and the next."
 
In our terms: The marvelous journey of standards from Mount Sinai was all at once disrupted by "the first punishment," a direct continuation of the war with Amalek. With this we better understand the exceedingly severe attitude towards Amalek (Devarim 25:17-19), who "smote the hindmost of you," both following the exodus from Egypt and during the journey from Mount Sinai.
 
That which the Torah merely made allusion to, Chazal spelled out. According to them, the people of Israel were not worthy of the full protection of the cloud at the time of the "first punishment," because of their feeling of relief of leaving the Torah behind, like a "school child who runs away from school" at the end of the school year and searches for other things.
 
Thus, we also understand the harsh atmosphere that prevailed in the camp in the wake of the sudden attack:
 
And the people were as murmurers, speaking evil in the ears of the Lord. (11:1)
 
This was followed by the "children of Israel" being dragged after the "the mixed multitude that was among them" (11:4) and their craving for meat. The "second punishment" and the "third punishment" already took place in a camp that had found little rest after Amalek's attack.
 
The Torah hid all this, leaving us with hints that only Chazal in their wondrous genius were capable of deciphering.[9]
 
II. The Gathering and the Ru’ach
 
At Tav'era, "the fire of the Lord burned among them, and devoured in the uttermost part (ketzeh) of the camp" (11:1-3). Chazal disagree as to whether the reference is to those who "were extreme in baseness" (muketzim) or to "the most distinguished ones" (ketzinim) in the camp.[10]
 
While facing the murmurers, Moshe found within himself a power of "prophetic prayer," as at the time of the sin of the golden calf and the sin of the spies: "And Moshe prayed to the Lord, and the fire abated" (11:2). But in the face of the craving for meat and the crying over the food of "hunger" (= the manna) as opposed to the "vegetable garden" of Egypt, Moshe stood helplessly. With exceptional bitterness, he lashed out against God:
 
I am not able to bear all this people myself alone, because it is too heavy for me. (11:14)
 
Not only did he question, "From where should I have flesh to give unto all this people?!" (11:13), but he questioned from where God should have it:
 
If flocks and herds be slain for them, will they suffice them?[11] Or if all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, will they suffice them? (11:22)
 
In fact, R. Akiva considered these words a far greater and graver sin than Moshe's sin at Mei Meriva, the difference being only that this sin was only between Moshe and God.[12] Thus, God bore his sin and merely rebuked him:
 
Is the Lord's hand waxed short? Now shall you see whether My word shall come to pass to you or not. (11:23)
 
In the continuation, God restored and rehabilitated the institution of the elders, which apparently lost of its power in the storms surrounding the exodus from Egypt. He did this in order to help Moshe and relieve him of his feeling of loneliness in his leadership of the people under such a heavy burden.
 
It is clear, then, that the crisis of craving for meat affected not only the mixed multitude and the children of Israel who were drawn after them, but also the most distinguished members of the camp, the elders of the people, and even Moshe himself.
 
Some of the key words in this parasha are derived from the roots asaf/yasaf, matza/atzal, and ru'ach:
 
And the mixed multitude (ve-ha-asafsuf) that was among them fell a lusting…
Gather (asefa) unto Me seventy men of the elders of Israel…
And I will take (ve-atzalti) of the spirit (ru'ach) which is upon you, and will put it upon them…
Or if all the fish of the sea be gathered (ye'asef) together for them, will they suffice (u-matza) them?
And he gathered (va-ye'esof) seventy men of the elders of the people…
And He took (va-ye'etzal) of the spirit (ru'ach) that was upon him, and put it upon the seventy elders.
And it came to pass, that, when the spirit (ru'ach) rested upon them, they prophesied, but they did so no more (yasafu).
And Moshe withdrew (va-ye'asef) into the camp, he and the elders of Israel.
And there went forth a wind (ru'ach) from the Lord and brought across quails from the sea…
And they gathered (va-ya'asfu) the quails…
 
It is tempting to explain the matter in a simplistic manner that we are dealing here with a struggle between the prophetic spirit and the craving for meat, which bears the danger of a plague. But it is precisely the wind (ru'ach) that "went forth from the Lord" that brought the meat in such an exceptional manner.
 
Thus, we are forced to explain that the "wind/spirit from the Lord" brings both flesh and prophecy – flesh for those who crave it, and prophecy for those who are prepared for it. When these are gathered to prophecy and those gather the quails, all of them lift up their eyes to "the one God." The "wind/spirit from the Lord" is what brings to all people their dreams and their aspirations!
 
However, there were corresponding dangers. The blood of the quails that landed from the sea presented a grave danger. If one did not meticulously slaughter the birds in such a way that removed all of the blood, but merely spread them out – "And they spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp" (11:32) – the anger of God was kindled against him.[13]
 
On the other hand, those who gathered to prophecy also faced a crisis, for Eldad and Meidad prophesied in the camp and (apparently) challenged Moshe's authority[14] and that of the elders. Their very "prophesying" in the camp constituted a prophetic "opposition," which Yehoshua saw as a revolt. Only Moshe rose above this and said:
 
Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them. (11:29)
 
The deep crisis, in the wake of the collapse of the journey of the standards and in the wake of the murmurers, hurt the people of Israel from the top leadership down to the "mixed multitude that was among them." The challenge to Moshe's authority that began with Moshe himself ("I am not able to bear all this people myself alone, because it is too heavy for me") continues in the prophecy of Eldad and Medad and reaches its climax in God's anger with Miryam and Aharon and their talk about Moshe: "Has the Lord indeed spoken only with Moshe? Has He not spoke also with us?" (12:2).
 
III. Why Was Miryam Punished
 
According to the plain sense of the text, Miryam was angry with her brother, who ignored his Midyanite wife Tzippora even after her father brought her to Mount Sinai,[15] and took another wife, a Kushite.[16] In so doing, he hurt the family.
 
However, according to Chazal's understanding, Miryam wanted to protect the Midyanite-Kushite Tzippora, whom her brother Moshe had married and later abandoned because of his prophecy and position. Thus, Chazal explained the connection between "the Kushite woman whom he had married" (12:1) and the argument that they too (Aharon and Miryam; 12:5) are prophets – yet they did not abstain from marital life.
 
In light of God's sharp response, it would appear that Miryam overstepped the boundary of what is permitted when she presented herself and her brother Aharon as prophet-leaders of equal standing with Moshe. God did not address the issue of Moshe's wife, but only that of Miryam and Aharon's pretensions that they were prophets equal in rank to Moshe, the insult to Moshe and his standing as prophet-leader. 
 
As for Moshe, not only did he remain silent and refrain from responding to the slander directed against him, but he even prayed on behalf of his sister who had hurt him, without reprisal. The punishment of Miryam (and Aharon) was carried out by God alone.
 
 
(Translated by David Strauss)
 
 

[1] This is similar to what we saw in the section dealing with the trumpets that sound teki'ot and teru'ot as a signal to set forth. It does not suffice that the cloud should be taken away, for one must not remain in a place of danger and rely on a miracle; see Shabbat 32a. The Ramban writes in his commentary to the Torah (Bemidbar 1:45; 13:2; Devarim 20:9) that "the Torah does not base its laws on miracles."
[2] It is not clear why a "resting-place" was necessary.
[3] Shabbat 116a; Tosafot (ad loc.) cite a midrash (Yelamdenu) "that they set forth from Mount Sinai on a three-day journey like a child who leaves school and runs away from it and goes on his way… because they learned much Torah at Sinai…." See also Ramban on v. 33, who says that the sin itself was the first punishment, for there is no mention of any punishment.
[4] Shemot 17. Pay attention to verse 6, which proves the close proximity of Refidim to Chorev; see the Ramban ad loc.
[5] In the account of the camps, Bemidbar 2:17; and in the account of the journey, 10:17, 21.
[6] See Sifre, Beha'alotekha 82. See Mishna, Sota, chapter 8, regarding the words of the priest who was anointed for battle: "For the Lord your God is He that goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you"(Devarim 20:4), and in the Gemara (Sota 42b-43a): "Because His name and all His substituted names were deposited in the ark." So too in the continuation regarding Pinchas as the priest anointed for battle in the war against Midyan (Bemidbar 31:6), "with the vessels of the sanctuary, the ark and the tablets which were in it."
In my opinion, these sources reflect two views regarding the ark that goes out to battle; according to the second opinion it contained the broken tablets, whereas according to the first opinion it contained the Urim Ve-Tumim with "His name and all His substituted names," so that the priest could inquire of God when necessary. This is stated explicitly regarding the war at Giv'a about Pinchas (Shofetim 20:27-28), and regarding Shaul's war at Ma'avar Mikhmash (I Shemuel 14:3, 18), as well as regarding Evyatar, who ran away to David with the efod, and Shelomo called it "the ark of the Lord" (I Shemuel 23:6, 9-12; II Melakhim 2:26). See my article, "Aron Ha-Berit U-Ma'amado Be-Sefer Shemuel" in Be-Ikvot Aron Hashem (5794).
[7] For an extended discussion regarding the question of whether Chovav is Yitro or his son, a brother of Tzipora, see Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Ramban on verse 29.
[8] Chazal make this statement in the context of the definition of the smallest sacred "book" – eighty-five letters, like the section of "And it came to pass, when the ark set forward" – for the purpose of saving a sacred book from fire on Shabbat (Shabbat 115b-116a). In my opinion, the two views complement each other; this passage regarding the ark that goes out to battle is connected to "the book of the wars of God" (Bemidbar 21:14), and the connection noted by Chazal (Shabbat 116a) to the standards is complicated and dependent on the question of which ark went out to battle.
[9] There is room to ask why the Torah concealed this. This is not like the 38 years of wandering in the wilderness, about which the Torah merely lists the "journeys of the children of Israel"(Bemidbar 33) and several allusions at the beginning of Devarim; this is not the place to expand upon the matter. 
[10] Sifre, Beha'alotekha 85; Rashi, verse 11:1.
[11] The most persuasive explanation is that of Rabban Gamliel ben R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi (cited by Rashi) that even "all the fish of the sea" will not suffice for them, because they will always find additional reasons to complain; no matter how much they receive, they will always want more.
[12] Tosefta, Sota 6:7. 
[13] See Sifre, Beha'alotekha 98, which states that the quail required ritual slaughter, and Scripture teaches that many did not properly slaughter the quail, but merely spread them out. 
[14] Like the first opinion in Sanhedrin 17a.
[15] See my article, "Ma'avak Ha-Zehut shel Moshe," Megadim 3 (2009), p. 37, and on my website.
[16] See Rashbam, Bemidbar 12:2, as opposed to Rashi in the wake of Chazal (Sifre, Beha'alotekha 99).