Sunday, October 22, 2017

Beha’alotecha 5777

The material in the Book of Bamidbar takes a dramatic turn in the middle of this week’s Torah reading. The first two and a half readings of Bamidbar are pretty humdrum stuff. We’ve got a lot of counting, and then less-than-exciting mitzvot, like the nazirite and Pesach Sheini. Actually, in the first 10 chapters, about a third of the book, the only spiritually inspiring material, for me, is the priestly blessing. That changes big time in this week’s reading. Starting with Chapter 11, we’ve got a very melodramatic narrative, mostly about complaining. But it includes mass deaths, sibling rivalry and passionate histrionics on the part of Yehoshua. What changed? And where do we see the dramatic turning point?

At the end of Chapter 10, Moshe asks, actually begs, his father-in-law to stay with the Jews in their journey into the desert, because after almost a year in the shadow of Mt. Sinai they are finally about to travel. Moshe tells his trusted mentor, “We are traveling to the place about which the Lord said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be good to you, for the Lord has spoken of good fortune for Israel” (Numbers 10:29). He’s saying, in effect, “C’mon, Dad, it’s gonna be great!” Chovav, alias Yitro, demurs. He chose well. Things deteriorate quickly. Before we point out the exact spot where the abrupt change takes place, I think we must ask: How could Moshe get it so wrong? I think there are two reasonable approaches. First, Moshe truly believed that the Jews had learned to trust God. The aftermath of the Sin of the Golden Calf and the Jews’ devotion in the building of the Mishkan led Moshe to believe that the nation was ready to face adversity with faith. Rav Soloveitchik posits that Moshe wasn’t so gullible, but he was presenting an eschatological vision. He was informing his father-in-law that there would be a great end of time for the Jews and it was worthwhile to make this long-term commitment to Jewish destiny, and perhaps this invitation was to the entire gentile world. Plus, by the way, Yitro knew where the water was to be found. Either way, the good times were soon to be a thing of the past.

This brings us to the great divide. Before this grand departure from Mt. Sinai, in many ways as impressive as leaving Egypt, the Torah proclaims two magnificent verses: And when the Ark traveled, Moshe said: “Arise, O God, and disperse Your enemies and those who hate You shall flee from before You.” And when it came to rest he would say: “Return, Hashem, the myriads of the thousands of Yisrael” (Ibid. 35-36). These two verses (va-yehi binsoa ha-aron and u’venucho yomar) are well known to synagogue regulars, for they are recited when we remove and return the Torah to the sacred ark. From this point on, things deteriorate fast. But don’t blame these verses. They aren’t part of the story.

These two verses are set off from the rest of the story by two upside-down and backward letters nun. These two sentinels appear like brackets, warning us that there’s a break in the action. Many authorities explain that these two verses really belong elsewhere in the Torah, but were placed here to separate the differing parts of the tale. But the Talmud presents a different rationale: Rebbi said: The markers indicate that this section is considered an independent volume. As in the verse, “She hewed seven pillars” (Mishlei 9:1)—this refers to the seven books of the Torah. Who does this follow? It follows Rebbi who held that Bamidbar is three books (Shabbat 115b-116a).

I’ve written about this amazing idea before. I explained that all of history can be explained by these two verses, because humanity is always either on the move or settling down. But this year I saw an idea by Rav Yair Kahn of Yeshivat Har Etzion that I found truly worthwhile. The Book of Bamidbar, up until this point, has been about establishing the camp and the rules of the march. Many of these rules will apply to the community when they reach Israel. So far, all has gone according to schedule. But when the cloud ascends above the Tent of the Covenant, and they travel a mere three days, it all goes awry. The nation starts to complain and that whining won’t stop until God decides that this generation can’t enter the Promised Land. Rav Kahn notes the “machane begins to malfunction.” He holds that our narrative is unraveling. So, we have two books of Numbers. One is ideal, and describes the establishment of a stable Torah society. The streets are straight and clean; people behave with consideration and empathy. But then they move.

It only takes three days for everything to go haywire. I think that the people didn’t truly understand the message of the two verses. The people got used to an organized society, where the services were efficient. It’s not like that when you travel. The delivery of food and water was less certain. Packing and making camp were daily hardships. Soon, after three days, some people snapped, and then others joined the chorus of whining. Even Moshe lost his cool, and asked God to replace him. The two verses were trying to teach them that travel is different from settled life, but they didn’t get it, or accept it, until they hit the road. And the road hit back.

Rav Kahn wants to know why we bother presenting the picture of an efficient community. Historically, that version never happened, and therefore it seems to have no significance. However, the Torah is not a history book. From the Torah’s perspective, the ideal journey contains a truth that transcends the events, and does exist, even though it has yet to take place. It is this belief that is the source of our undying faith that a time will come when this ideal community will become reality. May we experience it soon.

By Rabbi David Walk


 Rabbi David Walk is a teacher at the Bi-Cultural Day school as well as Congregation Agudath Sholom’s Education Director. 

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