SALT Parashat Beha'alotekha 2015/5775

  • Rav David Silverberg

Motzaei Shabbat

            We read in Parashat Behaalotekha the story of Kivrot Ha-ta’ava, when shortly after Benei Yisrael’s departure from Sinai, the people began demanding meat.  In response to the people’s complaints, God told Moshe that He would be providing meat, whereupon Moshe asked, “Can enough sheep and cattle be slaughtered to suffice for them?  Would it suffice for them to draw all the fish in the sea?” (11:22).  God then responded, “Is the Hand of the Lord limited?  You will see whether or not My word will be fulfilled” (11:23).

            The commentators – and already Chazal, as cited by Rashi – struggled with the question of how Moshe could have doubted God’s ability to provide meat for Benei Yisrael.  Did Moshe really question whether God’s capabilities are unlimited, and whether just as He brought the people manna from the heavens each day, He could also provide meat?

            Seforno offers an insightful approach to explain Moshe’s question and God’s response.  He writes that Moshe was not questioning God’s capabilities, but rather noting that Benei Yisrael would not be satisfied with anything He gave them.  Moshe’s point was that the people would complain about their food rations regardless of what they were given.  God could provide an unlimited supply of meat, but even this would not suffice, because the people wanted to complain and protest.  God then responded, “Is the Hand of the Lord limited?”  He was telling Moshe that He was capable of not only providing an unlimited supply of meat, but also of causing Benei Yisrael to stop craving more food.  Seforno explains that while it is true that “ha-kol bi-ydei Shamayim chutz mi-yir’at Shamayim” – we are responsible for our conduct and values, as we are given free will and our choices are not predetermined – nevertheless, God is capable of creating conditions that affect our likes and dislikes.  In the case of Kivrot Ha-ta’ava, God told Moshe that He would provide the people with such a quantity of meat that “ve-haya lakhem le-zara” – they would feel sickened by it within a month (11:20).  God’s response to the people’s complaints was to make them repulse meat, rather than crave it, which He accomplished by enabling them to eat to the point where they looked upon meat with disgust.

            According to Seforno, then, this exchange between Moshe and God has to do with the boundaries of bechira chofshit – free will.  Moshe initially doubted that God could step in to curb the people’s craving for food, as doing so would interfere with their free will.  We all have certain vices and tendencies with which we need to struggle, and whether we defeat or succumb to those vices and tendencies is entirely up to us.  God noted, however, that while He does not directly interfere with a human being’s free will, He can and does create conditions that affect the intensity of our moral struggles.  While God does not change our “wiring” to make us less inclined to sin, He could modify the conditions and circumstances in which we live, which naturally affect the degree to which we are drawn toward improper behavior. 


            The Torah in Parashat Behaalotekha tells of Benei Yisrael’s complaints as they embarked from Sinai upon the journey that was to have taken them directly to Eretz Yisrael.  Soon after their departure, we read, the people were “ke-mit’onenim” – which several commentators explain to mean that they looked for reasons to complain.  They did not have any particular problem to complain about – and indeed, the Torah uses here the generic term “mit’onenim,” without specifying any particular complaint – but like young, irritable children, they looked for reasons to feel dissatisfied and protest.  This incident was followed by the tragedy of Kivrot Ha-ta’ava, when the people expressed their desire for meat and the varied foods which they claimed to have enjoyed as slaves in Egypt.  God responded by killing members of the nation for their complaints.

            The root of these complaints can likely be found in a famous passage in the Midrash, cited by Tosefot in Masekhet Shabbat (116a), which compares Benei Yisrael’s departure from Mount Sinai to a child’s “escape” from school at the end of the day.  Just as a schoolchild happily runs to enjoy his long-awaited “freedom” after a grueling school day, similarly, Benei Yisrael left Sinai with a sense of relief.  They had spent nearly a year at Mount Sinai, during which time they received the Torah, learned about its laws, and constructed the Mishkan.  When the time finally came to disembark, they “fled” with a feeling of relief, knowing that they would not be receiving any additional laws or given additional responsibilities.

            It is likely that Chazal here sought to identify the origins and root cause of the people’s pettiness and grumbling.  Having grown tired of the demands and obligations imposed upon them at Sinai, they sought satisfaction elsewhere – in physical enjoyment and indulgence, and therefore demanded more and a greater variety of food.  Once they viewed the Sinai experience as a tiresome burden, rather than a source of personal fulfillment, they felt discontented with their physical conditions, and complained.

            In one of the more famous verses in Tehillim (23:1), David exclaims, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be lacking.”  This is commonly understood to mean that David felt confident that his needs would be met, recognizing that the Almighty was caring for him.  Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, however, added that this verse may also be read differently.  If we recognize that “the Lord is my shepherd,” that we are in God’s presence and following the path He charted for us, then we “shall not be lacking” – we will not feel dissatisfied with our lot in life.  If we approach Torah life with the proper perspective, appreciating the privilege of serving our Creator, and regarding avodat Hashem as our very highest priority, then we never feel “lacking.”  We are not troubled or frustrated by our physical or material conditions, because this is not where we turn for fulfillment and gratification.  If our goal is following our “Shepherd,” fulfilling the will of God, then it would not matter to us whether or not we can afford a given luxury, or whether we are as materially comfortable as we would ideally want.

            And thus Benei Yisrael’s “flight” Sinai led directly to their complaints about their condition.  Once they tired of Torah and mitzvot, viewing it as an onerous burden, rather than a source of joy and fulfillment, they felt dissatisfied with their material conditions and complained.


            The final section of Parashat Behaalotekha tells the story of Miriam and Aharon’s inappropriate remarks about their brother, Moshe, and Miriam’s punishment which resulted from this offense.  The Torah relates that Miriam and Aharon spoke about the “Kushite” woman whom Moshe married, and then asked, “Did the Lord really speak only to Moshe?  Did He not speak also to us?” (12:2).

            Rashi explains that these two remarks are essentially a single complaint about Moshe.  Moshe had divorced his wife, Rashi writes, a measure he deemed necessary due to his unique prophetic stature.  Miriam and Aharon criticized this move, noting that they also beheld prophecy and did not feel the need to divorce.

         We may, however, read the verses to mean that Miriam and Aharon made two distinct comments about Moshe, which are not directly related to one another.  The Torah itself perhaps suggests this reading by shifting from the singular form to the plural form.  The opening verse tells, “Va-tedaber Miriam ve-Aharon” – implying that this first comment, regarding Moshe’s marriage, was made primarily by Miriam, and not by Aharon.  The next verse, by contrast, begins with the word, “va-yomeru” – “they said” – indicating that the second remark, questioning Moshe’s singular stature, was made by both Miriam and Aharon equally.  Accordingly, we might explain that this incident entailed two different stages.  First, Miriam spoke disparagingly about Moshe’s marriage, and then Miriam and Aharon together spoke of how Moshe’s prophetic stature  was no different than theirs, and thus he does not – in their minds – necessarily deserve his position of distinction.

            God’s angry reaction to Miriam and Aharon should perhaps be understood along these lines.  The Torah tells that God spoke to Miriam and Aharon about Moshe’s unique stature, how he is fundamentally different from, and superior to, all other prophets (12:6-9).  These words were spoken to both Miriam and Aharon.  Thereafter, Miriam – and only Miriam – was stricken with tzara’at.  Possibly, these two divine reactions correspond to the two different remarks made about Moshe.  In response to Miriam and Aharon’s conversation challenging Moshe’s right to his position of distinction, God chided them and noted that Moshe was, indeed, special.  Then, in response to Miriam’s criticism of Moshe’s marriage, God punished her with tzara’at.

            Significantly, Miriam’s comments about Moshe’s stature resulted in a harsh punishment, while her and Aharon’s remarks about Moshe’s prophetic stature did not.  The reason, it would seem, is that their comments about Moshe’s stature, even if they were expressed inappropriately, raised a legitimate question that deserved an answer.  It was perhaps not immediately evident how Moshe was different from other prophets, and therefore God stepped in to clarify that “be-khol beiti ne’eman hu” – Moshe was unique and special.  Miriam’s comments about Moshe’s family life, however, had no justification and constituted pure lashon ha-ra (negative speech about one’s fellow).  She had no place peering into Moshe’s personal life and criticizing his personal decisions.  There is no justification for gossip.  Miriam and Aharon could be excused for wondering whether Moshe was worthy of his special status of distinction beyond that of other prophets such as themselves, but Miriam could not be excused for prying into Moshe’s personal life, and therefore she was severely punished.

(Based on an article by Rav Amnon Bazak in Shabbat Be-Shabbato, Parashat Behaalotekha, 5763)


            The Torah in Parashat Behaalotekha speaks of the designation of the Leviyim as the special tribe assigned to serve in the Mishkan.  God tells Moshe, “I have given the Levites to Aharon and his sons from among the Israelites to perform the Israelites’ service in the Tent of Meeting and to atone for the Israelites, so that no plague shall befall the Israelites when the Israelites approach the sacred domain” (8:19).  Rashi, commenting on this verse, notes that the term “Benei Yisrael” (“the Israelites”) appears five times in this verse, and explains (citing Rav Moshe Ha-darshan) that these five references correspond to the five books of the Torah: “Benei Yisrael are mentioned five times in this verse to express their love [in God’s eyes], that they are mentioned multiple times, the same number as the five books of the Torah.”  The fact that Benei Yisrael are mentioned here five times – the same number as the number of books in the Torah – expresses how beloved they are to God.

            Why are Benei Yisrael compared to the books of the Torah, and why is this expression of God’s affection necessary specifically in this context?

            The Rebbe of Kotzk explained that Benei Yisrael needed this reminder specifically now, because one tribe was being singled out for special distinction.  The unique status assigned to the tribe of Levi could have left the mistaken impression that the other tribes were inferior and unimportant.  Rashi here conveys the message that Levi’s distinction in no way undermines the value and importance of the other tribes.  Benei Yisrael are like the five books of the Torah – each of which serves a distinct function, but none of which is any less sacred or vital than the next.  The special role assigned to the Leviyim does not mean that the others are unimportant, but simply reflects the fact that different groups among Benei Yisrael have different roles to fill- just like the five books of the Torah, which, while separate and distinct, ultimately combine to comprise a single, organic unit.


            The final verses of Parashat Behaalotekha tell of Miriam and Aharon’s conversation questioning actions taken by their brother, Moshe.  Their remarks focused on the fact that Moshe was not, in their eyes, worthy of any special stature or distinction: “Did the Lord really speak only to Moshe?  Did He not speak also to us?” (12:2).  The Torah later, in Sefer Devarim (24:9), issues a special command to remember this incident, which resulted in Miriam’s being stricken with tzara’at for speaking negatively about her brother.  Several sources explain this command as an obligation to avoid speaking lashon ha-ra (see the introduction to Chafetz Chayim).

            If, indeed, the story of Miriam is presented as the basis for the prohibition against lashon ha-ra, then it stands to reason that we may learn about the core and essence of this prohibition from Miriam’s remarks.  At the heart of Aharon and Miriam’s disparaging comments about Moshe was an attempt to draw a comparison between him and them: “Did the Lord really speak only to Moshe?  Did He not speak also to us?”  Often, when we speak disparagingly or libelously about others, we are engaging in this kind of exercise – intuitively comparing ourselves to them.  Unable to emotionally handle our insecurities, we disparage other people so we can feel superior.  Whether it’s through false accusations or by focusing on the person’s actual negative conduct and character traits rather than his admirable qualities, lashon ha-ra is generally spoken as a cheap attempt to boost our self-esteem by making our fellow seem inferior.  And thus Aharon and Miriam’s remarks about Moshe serve as the prototype of lashon ha-ra, of depicting another person in a negative light so we do not have to feel inferior.

            The lesson of this story, then, is to avoid comparing ourselves to others, and to strive to achieve to the best of our ability irrespective of how we match up or don’t match up to our peers.  It is the need to feel equal or superior to our peers that we seek to cast them in a negative light.  If we rise above this need, and focus on our own growth and achievement, we will be able to see all that is good about other people rather than look to criticize and ridicule them.


            The Torah in Parashat Behaalotekha tells of how Miriam and Aharon were reprimanded for speaking “about the Kushite woman” whom Moshe had married (12:1).  Rashi, citing Chazal, explains that Moshe had divorced his wife, a measure he deemed necessary due to the frequency of his prophetic visions, which required a state of purity.  Aharon and Miriam criticized Moshe’s drastic decision, noting that they were also prophets, and yet had no need to disrupt their marital lives.

            Rav Shmuel Yaakov Rubinstein, in his She’eirit Menachem, suggests that this episode resulted directly from the preceding story, that of Kivrot Ha-ta’ava.  Upon hearing the people bitterly complain about the lack of a variety of foods in the wilderness, Moshe despaired, and turned to God to ask to be relieved of his position of leadership.  Whereas in the past Moshe staunchly defended the people and pleaded their case to God, here, when they protested their limited rations and demanded a richer diet, he felt incapable of continuing serving as their leader.  Possibly, Miriam’s criticism of Moshe’s drastic measure came in response to this incident.  She was perhaps concerned that Moshe’s ascetic lifestyle created an unbridgeable gap between him and the people, and it thus hampered his ability to effectively lead.  Moshe’s “breakdown” in the face of the people’s grumblings could have been seen as a result of his inability to relate to ordinary people with normal human cravings and desires.  He simply could not understand why they would complain about the austere conditions of the wilderness.  Having achieved such spiritual greatness, Moshe could not relate to these grumblings, and thus he turned to God and cried, “Why have You done evil to Your servant, by placing upon me the burden of this entire nation?” (11:11).  This led Miriam to question Moshe’s extreme ascetic measures, which she deemed unnecessary and which she blamed for the crisis which had just unfolded.

            Rav Rubinstein adds that this might be the reason why the Torah makes a point of noting Moshe’s extreme humility in this context: “The man, Moshe, was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth” (12:3).  Rashi interprets the word “anav” (“humble”) to mean “lowly and tolerant.”  In contrast to Miriam and Aharon’s suspicions, Moshe was, in fact, “tolerant” of other people’s faults and flaws.  His reaction at Kivrot Ha-ta’ava was due not to his inability to relate to the people, but rather due to the nature of their complaints and what it reflected (which requires a separate discussion).

            This reading perhaps offers us new insight into the concept of “humility,” which involves the ability to relate to and understand people on a lower spiritual plane.  Moshe was an “anav” in the sense that despite his lofty achievements, he did not ignore or dismiss the mundane concerns of the ordinary laymen under his charge.  Part of humility is being able to relate to people on their level, to understand them based on their frame of reference and mindset, and to respect them for what they are even if in many respects we honestly feel we are greater.  Humility does not mean denying our achievements, but rather entails tolerating and respecting those who have not reached those same achievements, and being willing and able to relate to them on their level. 


            We read in Parashat Behaalotekha of Benei Yisrael’s complaints during travel after they embarked from Sinai (“Va-yehi ha-am ke-mit’onenim”), in response to which God unleashed a fire that consumed “ketzei ha-machaneh” (“the edge of the camp” – 11:1).  The Midrash Tanchuma explains this to mean that God killed specifically the nation’s elders.  These leaders, the Midrash comments, had already been deserving of death because of the disrespect they displayed at the time of the Revelation at Sinai.  The Torah in Sefer Shemot (24:11) tells that the leaders of Israel “ate and drank” while God revealed Himself at Sinai, and the Midrash explains this to mean that they acted in a casual, laid back manner when they should have conducted themselves with reverence and respect.  In order not to interfere with the festive aura of Matan Torah, God delayed their punishment to the time when the people complained during travel, and at that point the elders were killed.

            The Midrash here seems to draw a parallel of sorts between these two incidents – the leaders’ irreverence during the Revelation, and the people’s complaints upon departing from Sinai.  Benei Yisrael’s complaints were deemed a grievous offense because they bespoke a degree of apathy to the spiritual nature of their journey.  They were traveling with the Ark, the symbol of God’s presence, to the Land of Israel for the purpose of fulfilling their national destiny, realizing God’s promise to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.  The Torah does not specify what the people complained about, likely because it did not matter.  Whatever problems or inconveniences they endured should have been wholly insignificant in this context, after they had received the Torah and constructed the Mishkan, and now made their way to the Land of Israel.  Nothing else should have mattered.  And thus their complaints resembled the grave mistake made by the elders at the Revelation, when they acted in a casual, “business as usual” manner as God came to reveal Himself and give them the Torah. We might draw an (admittedly imprecise) analogy to a groom who spends his wedding night watching a sporting event rather than devoting his full attention to his new bride.  At this special moment when the couple commits themselves to one another, anything short of complete focus and attention is offensive and inappropriate.  Similarly, at the time of the Revelation, the elders’ attention should have been focused exclusively on the awesome spectacle and on the eternal covenant being forged between God and His beloved nation.  And, as Benei Yisrael embarked on its journey from Sinai to Eretz Yisrael, their minds should have been focused on the spiritual destiny that lay ahead of them, rather than on food or their conditions of travel.

            On one level or another, this lesson of the elders applies to each and every one of us.  Even though we do not stand at Sinai beholding God’s revelation, and we are not traveling with the Ark, nevertheless, we are to see ourselves as God’s servants assigned a sacred, lifelong mission, which demands focus and attention.  Certainly, the level of focus and attention demanded of us is not the same as was demanded as Benei Yisrael journeyed from Sinai.  Nevertheless, this perception of our lives as a sacred mission should limit the extent to which we focus on the vanities of the world, and requires us to maintain a certain level of seriousness and proper prioritization.  Although we cannot remain constantly focused on our spiritual mission at every moment, we must keep our priorities straight and remember that our material standards are far less important than our spiritual standards, and that nothing matters more than our level of devotion and faithfulness to the Almighty.


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