Parshat Bha'alotcha -
The Mit'avim

(To prepare for this shiur,
see the questions for self study.)

Three books in one? So claim Chazal in regard to Sefer Bamidbar!

And what's more, one of those three books contains only the two psukim of: "vay'hi bin'so'a ha'aron..." (10:35-36; i.e. the two psukim that we recite when we take out and replace the Sefer Torah)! Is it possible that a mere two psukim can be considered an entire "sefer?" (See Shabbat 115b-116a.)

In this week's shiur, we answer this question by conducting an overall analysis of Sefer Bamidbar.

As anyone familiar with Chumash knows, rarely do we find any symbols of punctuation in the Sefer Torah. Nonetheless, the two psukim of "vay'hi bin'so'a ha'aron..." are an exception, for the Torah surrounds them with two backwards "nun"s (acting like parentheses), causing these psukim to 'stand out.'

For this 'technical' reason alone, we can already assume that there must be something special about these two psukim. But from a thematic perspective as well, these two psukim are special for they stand at a very pivotal location in Sefer Bamidbar. Let's explain why.

Recall our explanation from last week's shiur how the narrative of Sefer Bamidbar describes Bnei Yisrael's journey from Har Sinai towards Eretz Canaan. This narrative divides very neatly into two distinct sections:

(See Board #1.) Thus, the two psukim of "vay'hi binso'a ha'aron..." (10:35-36) - the final two psukim of chapter 10 - act as a divider between these two sections. In our shiur, we must explain not only why these two psukim are delimited, but also why Chazal consider them an entire 'book.' To do so, we must first consider what should have happened in Sefer Bamidbar in contrast to what actually took place.

High Hopes
Already in Sefer Breishit, God had set His plan for Bnei Yisrael to become His special nation in the Promised Land. In order that they would accomplish this goal, God had redeemed Bnei Yisrael from Egypt and given them the Torah. Theoretically (at least), they should now be ready to inherit that land.

As we explained in last week's shiur, Sefer Bamidbar begins with a description of how Bnei Yisrael are to travel with the Mishkan at their center. This was significant for the return of the Sh'china to the Mishkan reflected Bnei Yisrael's atonement for Chet Ha'Egel. It was now God's hope that Bnei Yisrael are finally ready to continue upon their journey from Har Sinai towards the Promised Land.

Thus, it is quite understandable why the first ten chapters of Sefer Bamidbar [Book I] could be considered a 'book' for they discuss a complete topic - Bnei Yisrael's technical and spiritual preparation for this journey. For example:

(See Board #2.) In a similar manner, we can consider chapters 11-26 as a 'book' [Book III] for they explain why Bnei Yisrael do not enter the land. (See Board #3.) But why should the two psukim in the middle [Book II], which form merely a buffer, be considered a "sefer" as well? (See Board #4.)

One could suggest that 'Book II' serves as more than just a buffer, for its two psukim (10:35-36) describe the fashion in which Bnei Yisrael should have traveled on their journey to inherit the Land. [Compare with Shmot 23:20-27.] Despite its brevity, Book II represents the ideal manner in which Bnei Yisrael were to travel - i.e what should have happened. (See Board #5.)

By intentionally delimiting these two psukim with backwards "nun"s, the Torah accents the tragedy of Sefer Bamidbar. In this manner, Book I - Bnei Yisrael's preparation for their journey - is followed by two 'versions' of that journey:

To accent the tragedy of Book III, the Torah first presents a 'glimpse' of what 'could have been' in Book II - the glorious manner in which Bnei Yisrael could have travelled, had they not sinned.

What Went Wrong?
So what went wrong? What leads to sins of the "mit'on'nim," the "mit'avim" and the "meraglim," among others?

Chazal find a 'hint' in the pasuk (which immediately precedes "vay'hi binso'a ha'aron") that describes Bnei Yisrael's departure from Har Sinai":

"And they travelled from God's mountain..." (see 10:33-34)

Ramban comments: like a child 'running away' from school!

Ramban compares Bnei Yisrael's stay at Har Sinai to a 'school year' [quite appropriate for this time of year]. Even though they studied God's laws at Har Sinai, it seems as though the spirit of those laws were not internalized. They people were looking forward to leaving Har Sinai much more than they were looking forward to keeping God's laws in Eretz Canaan. Even though they may have been technically 'prepared' for this journey, they most definitely were not spiritually ready. [See further iyun section.]

But who is to blame? Certainly, first and foremost the people themselves. But if we follow Ramban's "mashal" [of Har Sinai Elementary School], we must also consider the possibility that the teacher may share some of the responsibility as well. We will now show how Sefer Bamidbar may allude to this possibility as well.

Has Moshe 'Had Enough?'
Beginning with chapter 11, in almost every account of Bnei Yisrael's sins in Sefer Bamidbar, it appears as though Moshe Rabbeinu's leadership falters. Not only do the people constantly complain to him in chapter 11, even his own brother and sister criticize him in chapter 12! Then in chapters 13-14, the "meraglim" call for a national rebellion against him, and later (in chapter 16) Korach leads yet another rebellion.

So, what went wrong?

One could suggest that the core of the problem already surfaces in the case of "mit'avim" (see 11:4-14).

First of all, note Moshe's petition to God in reaction to Bnei Yisrael's complaint about the stale taste of the manna:

"... And Moshe pleaded to God: Why have You dealt so harshly with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor that You have laid the burden of this people upon me?... I cannot carry all this people by myself for it is too much for me. If you would deal thus with me, kill me rather..." (11:11-15)
In contrast to the Moshe Rabbeinu with whom we are familiar from Sefer Shmot - who consistently defends Bnei Yisrael when they sin - now in Sefer Bamidbar, Moshe's attitude appears to be quite the opposite - he would rather die than continue to be their leader!

Note as well the obvious textual parallels that highlight this contrast:

"Lama ha'rey'ota l'avdecha..." (Bamidbar 11:11)
instead of
"Lama ha'rey'ota l'am ha'zeh... - Why have you dealt so harshly with Your people? For what purpose have you sent me, for since I have gone to Pharaoh in Your Name, things have only become worse..." (Shmot 5:22)

"Lama lo matzati cheyn b'eynecha..." (Bamidbar 11:11)

instead of
"V'ata im matzati cheyn b'enyecha... - And now, if I have found favor in Your eyes, let me know Your ways so I can find favor in Your eyes - and see that they are your people... and how will I know that I and Your people have indeed found favor? When You allow Your Presence to travel with us..." (see Shmot 33:13,16!)

"If this is my plight [to lead them] - I'd rather die..." (11:15)

instead of
"If You forgive their sin [fine]... but if not erase me from Your book that you have written..." (see Shmot 32:30-32)
(See Board #6.) [In the above comparisons, note as well the Torah's use of key phrases such as "charon af Hashem," "ra'ah," "matzati cheyn b'einecha," etc.]

Is it not ironic that after the incident of Chet Ha'Egel Moshe is willing to die in order to save his nation (see Shmot 32:32), while now he would rather die than lead his nation! In Sefer Shmot, Moshe was always 'sticking out his neck' to defend Bnei Yisrael, while now he appears to have 'given up.'

[Note as well Rashi on Bamidbar 11:28 where he quotes the Sifri that explains how Eldad's and Meidad's prophecy at this incident was that "Moshe will die and Yehoshua will lead Bnei Yisrael into the Land instead." This Midrash suggests as well that the failure of Moshe's leadership already begins with this incident of the "mit'avim" and is not solely due to his sin at "mei meriva."]

These parallels, suggesting a possible flaw in Moshe Rabbeinu himself, must bother every student of Chumash. Could it be that Moshe Rabbeinu reacted in an improper manner? Is it possible that the greatest "navi" of all time, who received the Torah and taught it to Bnei Yisrael, just 'gives up?!' Is Moshe Rabbeinu - who took Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt and faithfully led them to Har Sinai - now unable to lead them on the last leg of their grand journey from Har Sinai to Eretz Canaan? To answer yes would be blasphemous, yet answering no would appear to be rather naive.

Too Holy to Lead
One could suggest that the contrast between Moshe's reaction to Chet Ha'Egel and his reaction to the "mit'avim" stems from the motive behind each sin.

Despite the severity of Chet Ha'Egel, Bnei Yisrael's sin was the result of a misguided desire to fill the spiritual vacuum created by Moshe's absence. [See shiur on Parshat Ki-Tisa.] In contrast, the sin of the "mit'avim" seems to have been totally physical - an uncontrollable lust for food ["hit'avu ta'ava"].

Chet Ha'Egel presented an educational challenge that Moshe Rabbeinu was willing to accept, i.e. to take this misguided desire and channel it in the proper direction. However, after the lustful sin of the "mit'avim," Moshe Rabbeinu simply 'gives up.' He is unable to fathom how a nation, after spending an entire year at Har Sinai, has become so preoccupied with such mundane desires. Moshe simply does not have the educational tools to deal with such a low level of behavior.

God's immediate reaction to Moshe's petition reflects this very problem in Moshe's leadership. God finds it necessary to take some of the ruach (spirit) from Moshe and transfer it to the seventy elders (see 11:16-17). God now realizes that Moshe must now share some of his leadership responsibilities with elders who can possibly deal more realistically with this type of crisis.

One could suggest an additional insight. In Sefer Bamidbar, Moshe Rabbeinu could be considered 'over qualified' or 'too holy' to lead the people. After spending some six months on Har Sinai, Moshe Rabbeinu is on a spiritual level far higher than that of his nation. It is not that Moshe Rabbeinu is incapable of leading; rather the nation is on too low a level to benefit from his leadership. Quite simply, 'the leader' and 'the led' do not match.

Virtual ClassRoom enhancements by Reuven Weiser.

For Further Iyun
1. Relate Shmot 34:30-35 in relation to the "masveh" (the veil that Moshe wore after his descent from Har Sinai) to the above shiur.

2. Considering the parallel between Har Sinai and Gan Eden, why do you think that the sin of the "mit'avim" ("ta'avah") is significant?

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