After telling of Benei Yisrael’s journey from Mount Sinai, where they had been encamped for nearly a year, the Torah, in a pair of verses (10:35-6) tells of the brief prayer that Moshe recited when the ark began traveling, and the prayer he recited when the ark encamped. These two verses are set apart in the Torah scroll with unusual symbols (shaped like an inverted letter nun), which appear as parentheses surrounding these verses. The Gemara famously discusses these markings in Masekhet Shabbat (115b-116a), and it brings one view claiming that these “parentheses” indicate that this pair of verses should have really appeared earlier in the text. Specifically, they should have been included in the Torah’s lengthy discussion of the arrangement in which Benei Yisrael traveled, earlier in Sefer Bamidbar, as Moshe’s prayers were part of the procedure of travel. These places were “transplanted” from their natural location and brought here, the Gemara teaches, “to separate between one calamity and another.” In order not to present the accounts of two tragic events in immediate succession of one another, the Torah inserted this pair of verses in order to disrupt the flow of the narrative and thereby make a separation in between the two tragedies.
The Gemara proceeds to identify the two calamities which are “separated” by this pair of verses. The second calamity, as the Gemara notes, is clear – the story of Benei Yisrael’s complaints during travel, for which they were severely punished. This story appears in the text immediately following the “parenthetical” pair of verses. Before this pair of verses, however, there does not appear to be an account of any tragic event. The Gemara explains that the tragedy preceding these verses is Benei Yisrael’s departure from Mount Sinai: “Vayis’u mei-Har Hashem” – “They journeyed from the Mountain of the Lord” (10:33). The Ramban (to 10:35) and Tosafot (Shabbat 116) understand the Gemara’s comment based on the Midrash’s famous criticism of the way Benei Yisrael journeyed from Mount Sinai, describing them as leaving “joyfully, like a child running away from school.” The people felt relieved that they were leaving Mount Sinai and would not be receiving any more commands. The Gemara considers this inappropriate glee a “calamity” which needed to be separated from the subsequent calamity of the people’s complaints about their conditions in the desert.
The Saba of Slobodka (Or Ha-tzafun, vol. 3, p. 34, cited and discussed by Rav Nechemya Raanan) explained this depiction of Benei Yisrael as they departed Mount Sinai – “like a child running away from school” – by noting the contrast to a description of Benei Yisrael’s earlier journey, from the Sea of Reeds. After the miracle of the splitting of the sea, and Benei Yisrael’s song of praise to God for this miracle, the Torah tells, “Moshe had the Israelites journey from the Sea of Reeds” (Shemot 15:22), and Rashi, citing the Mekhilta, explains this to mean that Moshe needed to pull the people away from the shores of the sea against their will. The Egyptian chariots which had pursued Benei Yisrael and then drowned in the sea were laden with golden and silver, and these riches washed ashore. Benei Yisrael did not want to leave the seashore, busy as they were collecting the precious ornaments of their former oppressors. And so Moshe needed to pull them away.
The Saba of Slobodka commented that Benei Yisrael did not actually leave Sinai “like a child running away from school.” Rather, the Midrash means that they did not leave Mount Sinai with the same reluctance with which they had left the shores of the sea. When the time came to leave the seashore and proceed to the next stage of their destiny, the people wanted to wait until they had collected all the riches they could find. But when the time came to leave Sinai, there was no such hesitation. There was no interest in remaining to collect more spiritual riches as there was interest at the sea in remaining to collect more material riches. Chazal criticize this contrast by depicting Benei Yisrael as being all too eager to journey from Sinai, as though they were children running from school.
In conclusion, it is worth citing Rabbi Norman Lamm’s eloquent observation of the modern-day relevance of this Midrashic passage (in a sermon delivered in 1964):
Do we not experience this attitude all too often in our own lives, in our own society? All too frequently we approach our religious obligations in a manner more belabored than beloved. Our observance lacks joy, it lacks love, it lacks inner attachment. We, whom this age of automation has given so much leisure, come to the synagogue to worship, and we begrudge the time we spend on prayer. We carefully monitor our sessions in the synagogue with our watch. Heaven forbid lest services continue beyond the prescribed time!
…All this points to a lack of love, an absence of inner commitment, and therefore a religion which is joyless and unhappy. It is the approach…of a child who flees from rather than to school. It is the grievous error of spiritual truancy. And this indeed is the first great…catastrophe of any people.