The Torah writes that after Benei Yisrael journeyed from Sinai, where there had been encamped for over a year, the people started to complain: “Va-yehi ha-am ke-mit’onenim” (11:1). In response, God sent a fire that “consumed at the edge of the camp” (ibid). Rashi cites from the Sifrei different opinions as to the meaning of the “bi-ktzei ha-machaneh” (“at the edge of the camp”), one of which claims that it refers specifically to the nation’s leaders. This interpretation, of course, raises the difficult question as to why specifically the leaders were punished because of the people’s complaints. Why did God send a fire to kill only the nation’s leaders?
The Klausenberger Rebbe suggested an especially novel, and even striking, explanation of this incident, claiming that it was specifically the leaders who complained, and their complaints were about the people. They bemoaned what they perceived to be the woefully low spiritual state of the nation as they traveled from Sinai, and this is the “complaint” of which the Torah speaks in its brief account of this incident. The Rebbe adds that for this reason the Torah describes the complaints with the term “ke-mit’onenim,” which literally means, “as if they were complaining.” The leaders’ laments about the people were out of place and even incorrect. The people’s condition was not quite as deplorable as the leaders made it out to be. God reacted angrily to the leaders’ complaints, the Rebbe explained, because leaders are to speak in praise of the people under their charge and to focus their attention on the nation’s positive qualities.
The Rebbe’s understanding of this account becomes particularly salient when we consider the context of these complaints. This incident occurred shortly after Benei Yisrael’s departure from Mount Sinai, which the Midrash, cited by Tosefot in Masekhet Shabbat (116a), compares to the “flight” of schoolchildren after a long school day. Benei Yisrael “fled” from Mount Sinai, feeling overburdened and weary from the numerous laws and obligations taught to them during their stay by the mountain. And just after the incident of the mit’onenim, we read of the tragedy of Kivrot Ha-ta’ava, which unfolded after Benei Yisrael pettily expressed disdain for the miraculous manna and demanded a richer “menu” in the wilderness, even pining to return to Egypt. It would certainly seem that the nation’s leaders had plenty to complain about. And yet, according to the Klausenberger Rebbe, the leaders betrayed their position by lamenting the nation’s spiritual shortcomings. Their job was not to complain, but to work to uplift the people. Without overlooking the problems that demand solutions, leaders are to never lose sight of all that is good about the nation, and must constantly sing their praises. When the people themselves fall into negativity and cynicism, the leaders are to remain positive and hopeful, and show faith and confidence in the people’s potential.
According to the Klausenberger Rebbe, then, looking upon, and speaking of, the Jewish People with negativity and lament arouses God’s anger. He demands that we view and talk of Am Yisrael with respect and admiration, even as we work to address our nation’s many shortcomings so we can all grow and advance together.