The Invitation to Chovav

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT BEHA'ALOTEKHA

The Invitation to Chovav

By Rav Michael Hattin

INTRODUCTION

Parashat Beha'alotekha constitutes the thematic turning point of Sefer Bemidbar. Finally, after many months of preparations, the people are ready to commence their journey towards the Promised Land. The Parasha begins with a brief and somewhat disjointed reference to the kindling of the Menorah, continues with the description of the Levites' ceremony of investiture, anachronistically mentions the Passover celebration that in fact chronologically preceded the taking of the census at the Book's outset, and in that context then introduces the so-called "Second Passover" to be celebrated by those unfit to participate in the earlier rites. All of these matters directly pertain of course to the Mishkan, and it is that complex located at the spatial center of the Israelite encampment – and within whose confines unfolds the "God encounter" at their spiritual center – that will soon provide the concrete catalyst for the commencement of their journey:

…according to the ascent of the cloud from upon the Tent, the people of Israel would begin their travels, and at the place that the cloud would come to rest, there too the people of Israel would encamp. By God's command the people of Israel would travel and by God's command they would encamp. As long as the cloud rested upon the Mishkan they would encamp…(9:15-23).

Before that journey is underway, however, the Torah first introduces another related matter with its detailed description of the fashioning and use of the silver trumpets. Moshe is to use these precious instruments to rally the tribal princes or the people (in accordance with the specific notes that are sounded), or else to signal to them all that the camp is to be broken up and their peregrination is about to begin. Finally that day arrives, a scant three weeks after the census of the people, with which the Book opened, had been taken:

On the twentieth day of the second month of the second year, the cloud lifted from upon the Tabernacle of the Testimony. The people of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sinai according to the order of their travels, and the cloud came to rest in the wilderness of Paran (10:11-12).

But in the end, the singularly positive trajectory that characterizes these opening narratives of Sefer Bemidbar, the forward-looking preparations that fill these chapters, all of them are abruptly and tragically derailed almost at the very moment that the people journey forth from Sinai. As soon as they are underway towards the land of Canaan, the people inexplicably are stricken by a bout of misplaced murmuring and grumbling. This is immediately followed by their unfounded melancholy concerning the manna and then God's harsh response, and the Parasha inauspiciously ends with Miriam's verbal broadside against Moshe. The stage is thus set for next week's reading concerning the sending of the spies, a pivotal episode that culminates in the Divine barring of Canaan's borders before the people.

CONSIDERING CHOVAV

This week, we will consider the precursor to that journey forth from Sinai, a hope-filled exchange that transpires between Moshe and mysterious Chovav. In the careful analysis of that conversation we may detect the root cause of Israel's demise, for what the people lack as they leave Sinai's protective embrace is precisely what Chovav possesses in spades: confidence and resolve.

Moshe said to Chovav son of Re'uel, Moshe's father-in-law: "We are traveling to the place concerning which God said 'I shall give it to you,' go forth with us and we shall deal kindly with you, for God has spoken good things concerning Israel." But he said: "I shall not go, rather I shall go to my own land, and to my own birthplace I shall go." But he (Moshe) said: "Please do not abandon us, for you shall know our encampments in the wilderness, and you shall serve as our eyes." They journeyed forth from the mountain of God for a distance of three days, and the ark of God's covenant traveled before them at a three-day distance in order to search out a place of rest for them. Moreover, the cloud of God was upon them by day, when they traveled forth from the encampment (Bemidbar 10:29-34).

Before considering the identity of Moshe's interlocutor and the content of their conversation, let us first describe the introduction as well as the conclusion to the exchange. The people of Israel were poised to leave Mount Sinai and to travel to Canaan as Moshe invited Chovav to accompany them. The camp broke up and began its ponderous march, with the standard of the tribe of Yehuda (with its two associated tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun) serving as the vanguard. The other three standards followed suit, traveling according to the strict ordering principles outlined earlier in the Book. But as they went forth, the Ark of the Covenant broke ranks, for rather than traveling in the midst of the standards as was mandated in 2:17, it went before the entire congregation, journeying ahead of them at a three-day distance in order to pave the way. The Divinely-appointed protective cloud, in the meantime, shielded Israel from the harsh wilderness elements as they slowly moved through the barren landscape.

THE UNUSUAL POSITION OF THE ARK

The effect of the whole is therefore to emphasize God's concern and care for His people: His ark leads them so that they need not fear the entry into the disorienting wilderness while His cloud protects them so that they need not feel the discomfort of its unforgiving climate. Presumably, since this is their first foray into the "midbar," the people require an extra dose of assurance, and therefore the Ark of the Covenant unusually leads the way. Recall that in general, however, the Ark would travel after the first two tribal standards and after the Levitical families of Gershon and Merari that went between them. This was done so that by the time the Ark of the Covenant and the other holy objects borne by Bnei Kehat arrived (i.e. the Table, Menora, Golden Altar and Bronze Altar), the Mishkan building and enclosure would already be assembled and stand ready for the immediate placement of these vessels (see Bemidbar 4:4-20 and 10:11-28).

It is indeed striking, though, that immediately after emphasizing that whenever Israel journeys forth, the Ark is to travel in the midst of the tribes, the post-Chovav narrative that introduces their embarkation from Sinai then indicates that the Ark rather went before all of them! Might the text not be intimating that Israel's seeming fortitude in setting their sights for Canaan was in fact underlined by fragility, and their apparent determination was tinged with acute fear?

Returning now to Moshe's conversation with Chovav, it opens with Moshe's announcement that the journey of the people to Canaan is in fulfillment of God's pledge: He will give them the land just as He had sworn. Additionally, Moshe indicates that goodness is in store, for God has spoken "good concerning Israel." While Moshe does not specify the nature of this goodness, presumably it relates to the gift of the land itself. After an eternity of Egyptian oppression and after the year-long trial of eking out a transitory wilderness existence, the people will finally merit to possess their own land, and Chovav is to be included with them. Chovav responds by saying that his intentions are to return to his "own land and birthplace," thus highlighting the centrality of the land theme: that which Israel yearns for, Chovav already possesses and he therefore stands to gain nothing by accompanying them on their journey. He can remain their spiritual ally and sincere friend while yet keeping to his nomadic ways, and he need not relinquish his ties to his land or to his birthplace in the process of adopting Israel's God and their destiny as his own.

There is, however, another dimension to the lawgiver's entreaty to Chovav that he accompany Israel on its journey to the land; it relates not to Chovav's future benefit but rather to the people of Israel's immediate needs. As we have seen, the people require assurance and Moshe attempts to secure it by inviting a denizen of the wilderness such as Chovav to accompany them: "Please do not abandon us, for you shall know our encampments in the wilderness, and you shall serve as our eyes." In other words, Moshe implies that Chovav, who hails from the nomadic Midianites, is intimately familiar with the wilderness and with its terrain and can therefore provide Israel with useful guidance and comforting encouragement during the course of their arduous and uncertain journey towards the land. "If you have no personal interest in accompanying us," Moshe seems to be saying, "then please accompany us for our sake."

It should be pointed out that the medieval commentaries, mirroring a much earlier debate among the Sages, wonder whether Chovav is in fact Yitro the father-in-law of Moshe, or else Yitro's son and therefore Moshe's brother-in-law. The matter hinges upon the "father-in-law" modifier in the above verse. Does it modify Chovav or else Re'uel? Are we to read the verse thus: "Moshe said to Chovav son of Re'uel, Moshe's father-in-law," implying that Chovav is his father-in-law and therefore synonymous with Yitro? Or are we to instead separate the "father-in-law" clause from Chovav and instead append it to Re'uel, so that the verse is read: "Moshe said to Chovav, son of Re'uel Moshe's father-in-law"? This would of course make Re'uel synonymous with Yitro, and Chovav would be his son and Moshe's brother-in-law. Of course, according to our reading of the passage and its larger context, that it describes Israel's intense need for reassurance, it matters little who Chovav actually is. What matters only is that he knows the ways of wilderness and that he has a relationship of trust with Moshe and the people.

EXPECTATION AND HOPE

There is, however, another aspect to the matter, which is highlighted by Rashi (11th century, France) in at least two places. Commenting on our section, Rashi remarks that it is indeed striking that when Moshe announces to Chovav that the people are set to journey towards the land, he includes himself among them: "Moshe said to Chovav son of Re'uel, Moshe's father-in-law: WE are traveling to the place concerning which God said 'I shall give it to you,' go forth with us and we shall deal kindly with you, for God has spoken good things concerning Israel." This is in spite of the fact that every student of the text knows that Moshe was later denied entry to the land at the episode of the "waters of Meriva" (see Bemidbar 20:1-13). Rather, avers Rashi, when Moshe stated that "WE are traveling to the place" he meant to indicate that

…'we are going there immediately, for at the end of these three days we shall enter the land.' This first journey was undertaken with the intention of entering the land of Israel. But the people soon fell prey to grumbling. It was for this reason that Moshe included himself with them, for the decree banning him from the land had not yet been promulgated, and he thought that he was entering with them…(commentary to 10:29).

In other words, when the Ark traveled before the people at a distance of three days, it did so not in order to search out an appropriate location for their encampment, for there was to be NO intermediate encampment at all until they actually entered Canaan! The journey from Sinai into the wilderness with the Ark leading the procession was therefore not about nurturing reassurance but rather about fostering enthusiasm, about heightening anticipation and about haste. As Rashi explains in the parallel passage from Sefer Devarim, in which Moshe recalls this tumultuous and tragic journey,

Moshe said to the people: look what you have done! The shortest path from Chorev (Mount Sinai) to Kadesh Barne'a (the southern entrance to Canaan) is by the way of Mount Se'ir, and even so it is a distance of eleven days. But you traversed that distance in but three days…for the Divine Presence was so anxious on your behalf to expedite your entry into the land. But because you transgressed, He caused you to aimlessly wander the region of Mount Se'ir for a period of forty years! (commentary to Devarim 1:2).

Moshe's conversation with Chovav is thus cast in a completely different light. "God has spoken kindly concerning Israel" refers not to the gift of the land but rather to His intent to swiftly bring them to Canaan's gates. When Chovav expresses reservations, Moshe counters them by appealing to Chovav's "guidance." But the passage in its original Hebrew could just as easily be interpreted as expressing the past tense: "Please do not abandon us, for you did know our encampments in the wilderness, and you served as our eyes." As some of the commentaries point out, the reference is not to Chovav's future role as wilderness guide but rather to his past role as spiritual guide or witness. Rashi's comments in this connection are typical:

..you knew about our encampment in the wilderness and served as eyes for the miracles and wonders performed for us…(commentary to 10:31).

CHOVAV AS A PARADIGM

In other words, Chovav (who according to this interpretation must be Yitro himself) experienced the miracles that God wrought for the people in the wilderness as they camped at Sinai. He felt the Divine concern and he was acutely aware of the Divine impatience to bring them to the land. He himself had earlier heard of Israel's miraculous triumph over Egypt and he had journeyed from afar, from out of the maw of the Midianite wastelands, charged with anticipation and hope, in pursuit of the God of Israel (see Shemot 18:1-12). What better paradigm could there be for the people of Israel, of a man so inspired by his witnessing of Divine intervention that he might overcome his own fears and misgivings, and to anxiously and eagerly follow God wherever He might lead?

Of course, if this is the import of Moshe's invitation, then the Ramban's (13th century, Spain) post script must perforce be adopted:

It is my opinion that Chovav acquiesced and indeed accompanied them…(commentary to 10:31, amplified by his remarks to Shemot 18:1, end).

The opening narratives of Sefer Bemidbar, permeated with optimism and full of hope, are thus fittingly concluded by this exchange between Moshe and Chovav. The Torah's point in including the passage is of course to drive home a central point: trust in God is never a free ride. When God asks of us to be steadfast and to be faithful, to be inspired and to be bold, then we must maintain our composure (and our fervor) even as difficult trials stand in our path. What Israel needed most as they finally journeyed forth from Sinai towards the Promised Land, God paradoxically could NOT give them. They would have to acquire it on their own. Moshe's intention in inviting Chovav to join them was to provide his people with living proof that it was possible, even as God crafted the most favorable conditions for the challenges to be met. It is not enough to undertake the journey towards the land with lukewarm commitment; apathy will certainly not bring us to its gates. Only if we are inspired by a vision of God's own passionate enthusiasm, as if He Himself anxiously desires to bring us to it, can we hope to possess it in truth.

Shabbat Shalom