The Jewish People Enter

  • Rav Nathaniel Helfgot

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot


Our very rich parasha easily divides into two major sections:

1. Ch 8-10 - The dedication of the Menorah; the sanctification ritual of the Levites; the Pesach Sheini narrative; the final preparations for the first move of the camp away from Sinai; the mitzvah of making and using the silver trumpets; the first move of the camp on Iyar 20 of the second year from the Exodus; the invitation to Chovav ben Reuel (possibly Yitro) to join the Jewish people on their journey; the "Vayehi binsoa" passage.

2. Ch. 11-12 - The complaints of the people and their subsequent punishments at Taveirah and Kivrot Hata'avah; Moses' complaints to God regarding the burden of his role in caring for the people; the introduction of the seventy elders to help Moses; the "slav-quails" incident/tragedy; Eldad and Meidad prophesying in the camp and Joshua's concern about this development; the verbal attack of Aharon and Miriam upon the uniqueness of Moses' relationship to God; God's response; the Tzara'at and punishment of Miriam.

As the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt"l, noted in the opening of a memorable shiur on Parashat Beha'alotkha: even a cursory perusal of the two sections of Beha'alotkha reveals the sharp contrast between the early part of our parasha, filled with optimism and dynamism as the Jewish people make the final preparations to enter the Promised land, and the sense of disappointment and tragedy that permeates the second half, as the Jewish people began a series of sustained complaints against the mission. [The shiur was delivered on June 10, 1974; the second half of this address was later abridged and adapted into written form by Rabbi Abraham Besdin in REFLECTIONS OF THE RAV Vol. 1, pg. 150-9.] These murmurings and complaints bring down God's wrath upon them and give rise to a sense of despair and lack of confidence on the part of Moshe. The parasha closes with dissent, conflict and sin even within Moshe's family, as Miriam and Aharon speak against their brother. Indeed, as the Rav pointed out, Ch. 11 is the key turning point in the entire sefer. The mission to Eretz Yisrael is slowly undermined and halted, culminating with the sin of the Meraglim in Chs. 13-14. As the Rav dramatically noted, the theme of the first 10 chapters can be summed up by the exuberant statement and invitation of Moshe to Chovav - "We are traveling to the place that God has promised to give you" (10:29). We are on our way, no obstacles in our path; come join us in that wonderful and glorious march into the promised land. And then, in the turn of an instant, this entire atmosphere is shattered and destroyed forever.


In light of this insight of the Rav zt"l, I would like to point out some of the literary and thematic elements that the Torah uses to highlight the abrupt shift from the optimism of the first section to the disappointment of the second one. In the process we will hopefully emerge with a deeper understanding of the tragedy that is at the heart of our parasha.

1. It is striking that in the entire first 10 chapters of the sefer, the word "rah" (evil) NEVER APPEARS. In fact, in the penultimate passage before Ch. 11, the story with Chovav ben Reuel, "Chotein Moshe," the Torah employs the word "tov" and its many forms no less than five times in the span of four verses (10:29-32). Part of this repetition even creates a chiastic structure highlighting the significance of the "positiveness" of the mission:

"Lekha etanu VEHEITAVNU lakh, ki Hashem diber TOV al Yisrael" (10:29).

"Vehaya ki teileikh emanu vehaya haTOV....VEHEITAVNU lakh" (10:32).

In sharp contrast, the first part of Chapter 11 alone has four uses of the term "rah" in reference to the actions of the Jewish people and Moshe's reaction to them.

2. The Chovav narrative at the close of Ch. 10 climaxes the preparations for the advance of the camp through the desert and towards Eretz Yisrael. The Jewish people are ready to invite others from outside their camp to join them on their trek into the land. Mitzrayim is a distant memory and all that remains is the short journey up through the desert into the southern part of the promised land. In that context the Pesach Sheini narrative in Ch. 9 stands out. Immediately prior to the final preparations for the last leg of the journey, the Torah indicates that the entire Jewish people wanted to commemorate and participate in the Korban Pesach, the critical formative ritual indicating the people's affirmation of the covenant forged in Egypt. In short, there is a recommitment to Yitziat Mitzrayim and its goals, incorporated into religious and historical memory. At the same time, it is interesting to note that in Ch. 10 the term "Mitzrayim" does not appear once, even when it would have been logical for it to have appeared. Compare for example the following phenomenon from earlier in the sefer:

Bamidbar 1:1 - "On the first of the second month in the second year of their exodus from Egypt;"

Bamidbar 9:1 - "In the second year of their exodus from Egypt;"

while in our chapter,

Bamidbar 10:11 - " In the second year in the second month,"

without any mention of Mitzrayim at all!

It would seem that at this point in the narrative, the Torah is trying to direct our attention away from Egypt and into the desert, towards the land. Egypt has been incorporated into the historical memory and experience of the people, but now is the moment to move onto the future.

In sharp contrast, Ch. 11 reverses the two elements (the Chovav invitation and the movement away from Mitzrayim) entirely. Firstly, in place of the Jewish people reaching out to the "other" and inviting them on their journey, here we find the "outsiders," the "asafsuf" - tellingly identified by Chazal with the "eirev rav" (the mixed multitudes of other nations who left Egypt together with the Jewish people), - leading "bnei Yisrael" AWAY from their intended mission and destination. "The asafsuf in their midst... and the Jews also cried" (11:4). Secondly, they speak in glowing terms about their experience in Egypt - "we remember the fish we ate in Egypt...." They have reconnected with Mitzrayim, in effect negating the entire thrust of the last 10 chapters.

3. It would appear that the Torah engages in a subtle word-play that highlights the contrast between the two halves of our parasha. In the first part of the parasha one of the key words repeated over and over again is the root word "NaSA" (NUN-SAMEKH-AYIN). This word means to travel, march or journey. Indeed one of the key phrases used by the Torah in chapter 10 refers to the purpose of the silver trumpets as being to call the congregation and "leMASAH HAMACHANOT" (10:2); i.e. for the purpose of gathering the people together and the movement or journey (MEM-SAMECH-AYIN) of the camps.

In an interesting twist, one of the key words throughout Ch. 11 is the root "NaSA" spelled NUN-SIN-ALEPH, in its many forms. This word means to lift or carry, especially a burden. Moses invokes this idea a number of times in describing the burden of dealing with the complaints of the people and providing for their needs. In effect what was at one point "MASAH (Mem-Semech-Ayin) HAMACHANOT" (10:2) - The JOURNEY of the CAMP, has been transformed into "MASAH -(Mem-Sin-Aleph) HA'AM" (11:11;17), CARRYING and shouldering the burdensome people and its complaints.


1. Finally, it is important to note another series of key words as well as word combinations that the Torah chooses to emphasize in Chapter 11 of the sefer. Two of the dominant words in our chapter are the terms "Basar" (flesh), which appears eight times and "Ruach" (spirit), which appears six times. A careful search of the entire Torah yields the fascinating fact that the word pair basar/ruach appears (within a proximity of two verses or less) 21 times, within 14 different verses. Half of those verses (7),and more than half of those 21 citations appear in Sefer Bamidbar. Of those seven verses, five of them appear in Chapter 11. This, I believe, is no coincidence, but exhibits the fundamental tension of this chapter – which realm will dominate? Will it be the Flesh and what it represents in terms of physical and immediate gratification or will it be the Spirit, representing Dvar HaShem and His mission for the Jews. This struggle immediately raises in our mind the echo of the famous verse at the end of Parashat Bereishit, when God is preparing the flood: My Ruach will not dwell in Man forever, he is Basar" (6:3). At the dawn of creation Man is struggling to fulfill his destiny. Can he overcome his more animalistic nature and be the "Tzelem Elokim" which is inherent in him - the "Ruach" that God first breathed into man. (It may also be reflected in the name of Adam's second born, "HEVEL," which is another biblical term for wind or Ruach. Hevel, spirit or wind, like the spirit of God that opens Berishit, is the name of the "good" son who is murdered by the "evil" son Kayin. One can also note that Hevel is a shepherd who takes care of "basar," of animal flesh, and directs it to God in korbanot in the proper way - "Mibekhorot Tzono Umeichelveihem" [Bereishit 4:3]). A whole series of verses throughout the Flood narrative highlight this contrast between Basar and Ruach. Indeed, the only other section that contains the constellations of Basar and Ruach, in proximities similar to the ones in Bamidbar, is the Flood narrative (Bereishit 6,7; see, for example 6:17, "Leshacheit kol BASAR asher RUACH CHAYIM Bo"). These literary echoes suggest that the Jewish people here in our parasha are undergoing a mini-destruction or "flood," as the essence of their mission is being undermined and halted.

2. We have, in effect, come full circle. The beginning of Sefer Shmot speaks of the formation of the Jewish people, from a clan of twelve tribes and seventy souls to a unified national unit. As has been noted by many modern writers on Shmot, the first few chapters contain numerous literary references to the creation narratives at the beginning of Sefer Bereishit. Just to cite two obvious ones, when the Torah describes the growth of the Jewish people, it states "Uvnei Yisrael PARU VAYISHRITZU VAYIRBU VAYA'ATZMU BEM'OD ME'OD, VATIMALEI HA'ARTEZ OTAM" (1:7). This verse clearly echoes creation language of Ch. 1 of Bereishit - (Peru U'Revu, Me'od Me'od, Mileu Et Ha'aretz, Etzem Mei-atzamay) as well the additions of the "recreation" narrative of Bereishit 9 such as Peru Va'eretz U'Shirtzu Ba (Verse 7). The second example is found in Shmot 2, which writes upon the birth of Moshe "VATEIRE oto KI TOV HU" (Verse 2) which echoes the creation story of God "seeing" and declaring that it was good. (The midrash cited by Rashi that Tziporah saw that the house was filled with light (ohr), now takes on added resonance in its allusion to the creation of light on the first day). In short, the creation of the microsm of the Jewish people is presented as parallel to the creation of the macrocosm, of the universe and of mankind. The mission of the Jewish people is to perfect the creation and bring the message of God and his will into the world. From Parashat Shmot onward the mission had been moving forward, culminating with the revelation at Sinai and the establishment of the Mishkan, the mini-portable Sinai that brought God's presence into the camp and the world. The first part of Sefer Bamidbar lays out for us the continuation of the mission and the last preparations of organizing this mini-world, the camp of Israel on its way to complete its destiny and reach its destination.

But here in Ch. 11, everything begins to unravel and the early stages of the destruction are set into motion. Jewish history is about to be irrevocably changed, as the Jewish people reap the fallout of their missteps and mistakes.