The Torah in Parashat Behaalotekha tells of Benei Yisrael’s journey from Mount Sinai, after having spent nearly a month at the foot of the mountain. We find in this context the famous pair of verses “Va-yehi bi-nso’a ha-aron” and “U-vnucho yomar” (10:35-36), the proclamations Moshe made when the ark, transporting by the Leviyim, disembarked, and when it once again encamped.
The Gemara discusses these two verses in a famous passage in Masekhet Shabbat (115b-116a), where it notes the unusual markings that appear in the Torah scroll before and after this brief unit. According to one view cited by the Gemara, these markings, which act like parentheses, signal that this pair of verses is “out of place,” in a sense. The text of Moshe’s proclamations should have been presented earlier in Sefer Bamidbar, in the context of God’s presentation of His instructions for travel. These verses were moved to this place in Parashat Behaalotekha, the Gemara explains, “in order to disrupt between one calamity and the other.” Meaning, this pair of verses is preceded and followed by accounts of disasters, and it was placed here to make a break between these two accounts. Identifying these two disasters, the Gemara points to an earlier verse (10:33), “They journeyed from the mountain of the Lord,” which the Gemara understood as a “calamity” because it refers to not simply the physical departure from Mount Sinai, but a certain spiritual disengagement from God who appeared to them at Sinai. Tosefot explain the Gemara’s comment based on the Midrash’s famous description of Benei Yisrael departing Mount Sinai “as a child fleeing from school.” The first “disaster,” then, was Benei Yisrael’s departure from the site of Matan Torah, because they left with a sense of relief and exhilaration, thrilled that they would not be receiving any more commands. The second disaster is the account that immediately follows this pair of verses, which tells of Benei Yisrael’s complaints during travel, for which they were severely punished by God.
The Gemara’s discussion gives rise to several questions, including the question of why it was deemed necessary to make a separation between these two tragedies. What need was there to avoid telling of Benei Yisrael’s “escape” from Mount Sinai immediately before telling of their complaints during travel? In fact, one might argue that these two accounts should specifically have been presented in juxtaposition to one another, given the apparent direct connection between them. It seems that after a period of prolonged spiritual intensity, beginning with Matan Torah and followed by the lengthy process of constructing and consecrating the Mishkan, and of preparing for travel, Benei Yisrael craved “freedom” from this experience. They happily bid farewell to Sinai, and as they began to travel, they protested their meager “menu,” which consisted only of manna, expressing their desire for meat and vegetables. The departure from Sinai marked, in their minds, a transition point, bringing them from an experience of special spiritual intensity to their long-denied physical enjoyment and indulgence. (Similarly, the Gemara (Yoma 75a) comments that the people’s demand for food was also accompanied by protests over the Torah’s strict sexual code.) Seemingly, a straight line can be drawn from the nation’s inappropriately jubilant departure from Mount Sinai to their demand for food during travel, as both reflected the people’s desire for freedom and relief from the intense spiritual burden of Torah. Why, then, was it important to make an interruption between these two incidents?
Perhaps, the need for an interruption precisely stems from the direct connection between them. The separation serves to clarify that the first “tragedy” did not necessitate the second. The fact that Benei Yisrael felt relieved and overjoyed to leave Sinai did not necessarily have to lead to the next step, their irreverent and petulant protests against Moshe. Although this was a natural and predictable progression, it did not have to be so. While it is true that, as our Sages famously teach (Avot 4:2), “Aveira goreret aveira” – one sin tends to lead to another, this does not have to be the case. We are fully capable of stopping the downward spiral, of reversing a pattern of behavior and transforming decline into progress. The tragedy of “They journeyed from the Mountain of the Lord” did not necessarily need to result in the tragedy of the Mit’onenim and Kivrot Ha-ta’ava, the people’s bitter complaints. Just because they began feeling a desire to “free” themselves from the burden of mitzvot, this did not need to snowball into an outburst of anger, resentment and gripes.
If so, then the Gemara’s discussion of the Torah’s separation between the two tragedies teaches us that our conduct in the future is not trapped by our conduct in the past. If we’ve developed a negative habit, a negative attitude, or negative tendencies, this can be changed. What we do today and tomorrow is not an inevitable outgrowth of what we did yesterday. Bad habits and routines can be broken, and do not have to dictate what our future selves will look like.