The Gemara, in a famous passage (Shabbat 115b-116a), discusses the pair of verses in Parashat Beha’alotekha (10:35-36) which tell of Moshe’s prayer each time the ark began journeying when Benei Yisrael traveled, and each time the ark stopped when the time came to encamp. According to one view in the Gemara, these verses were to have appeared earlier in Sefer Bamidbar, but the Torah presented them here in order to “separate between one calamity and another.” The Torah did not wish to have two tragic events related one immediately after the other, and so it disrupted the flow of the narrative with this pair of verses. As the Gemara notes, the calamity which is told after these verses is the story of the “mit’onenim,” those among Benei Yisrael who complained during travel, resulting in a deadly fire sent by God (11:1). The first tragic event, however, is far less obvious, and the Gemara identifies it as Benei Yisrael’s journey from Mount Sinai (“Vayis’u mei-Har Hashem” – 10:33), commenting that this means, “They turned away from God.” As we discussed earlier this week, a number of commentators explain that the Gemara refers here to the famous tradition that Benei Yisrael journeyed from Mount Sinai “like a child running away from school,” with glee, relieved that they would not be receiving more commands, and this marked the first “calamity.”
Rashi, however, explains the Gemara’s comment differently. He writes (Shabbat 116a) that within several days of leaving Mount Sinai, some among the nation began demanding meat – in the incident of Kivrot Ha-ta’ava, which the Torah tells later – for which they were killed by God. Meaning, the “calamity” of “they turned away from God” was that several days later, they complained and demanded more food. Curiously, Rashi understood that already at the time of Benei Yisrael’s departure from Mount Sinai, the foundations for the tragedy of Kivrot Ha-ta’ava were laid, and this is the first “calamity” which the Torah needed to separate from the subsequent calamity by transplanting a pair of verses.
Netziv, in Herchev Davar (to 11:4), explains Rashi’s understanding of the Gemara, writing that when Benei Yisrael left Mount Sinai, the people already then craved meat and resented the manna – and this was the tragedy, that they left Mount Sinai with this inappropriate mindset. However, Netziv writes, at that point, the people restrained themselves from expressing demands for a more varied menu. That changed after the “mit’onenim,” the first group of people who complained about the long trek through the desert. The seeds of Kivrot Ha-ta’ava existed already when the people left Mount Sinai, as already at that point they desired a greater variety of food, but this desire did not lead to angry complaints and protests until later, after the incident of the “mit’onenim.” (Netziv explains on this basis the otherwise difficult term “vayashuvu” used by the Torah in reference to the people who demanded meat (11:4), claiming that this means that the people “returned” to their suppressed feelings of discontentment that had simmered already for several days.)
It seems, according to Netziv, that the “mit’onenim” had the effect of emboldening those who craved meat. These people managed to contain their dissatisfaction – until they saw a different group voice their complaints. This precedent, the complaints and protests expressed by the “mit’onenim,” is what led this second group to inappropriately demand meat and complain about the miraculous manna mercifully provided for them each morning.
This sequence of events, as understood by Netziv, perhaps shows how negativity is oftentimes contagious. An attitude of unjustified discontent, of complaining about what’s wrong instead of enjoying and celebrating what’s right, has a way of spreading. When we grumble and criticize, we encourage others to do the same. Conversely, when we approach the world and life with a positive, upbeat and optimistic outlook, rejoicing over what we have rather than lamenting what we lack, we exude positive energy that can spread to and uplift the people around us. When we are able to feel happy and content, rather than embittered and resentful, we not only enjoy greater peace of mind, but also energize other people and thereby do our share to spread joy and goodwill in our surroundings and throughout the world.