Parashat B'ha'alotkha

How The Trouble Began

The Israelites' troubles, and indeed our own troubles, begin when we turn away from God.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.

In the aftermath of a national calamity, we try to reconstruct the events that led to the tragedy. We try to locate the turning point, in the belief that there was a precise moment at which, had we been aware, we might have prevented the catastrophe.

To be sure, the Children of Israel were sentenced to die in the desert because of the sin of the scouts (Meraglim), as we will read in Parshat Shlah Lekha. However, the first signs of dissolution emerge in B'ha'alotkha.

The verses, “And it was, when the ark set forward, that Moshe said, ‘Rise up, Hashem, and let Your enemies be scattered, and let them that hate You flee before You.’ And when it rested, he said, ‘Return Hashem to the myriads and thousands of Israel.’” are set off with two inverted letters--n'oon to mark the end of the idyllic condition described at the beginning of the book of Bamidbar (ch. 1-10)--the order, purposefulness and unity--and the onset of deterioration:

And the people were as complainers of evil in the ears of Hashem, and Hashem heard and His anger was kindled; and a fire of Hashem burned within them and it consumed at the edge of the camp (11:1).

These are the troubles that culminated in the sin of the Scouts.

Actually, the Rabbis say (Shabbat 116a) that verses 10:35-36 are set off "to separate the earlier calamity from the later calamity," suggesting that the first signs of trouble were evident even before the people's grumbling. The Torah wants to avoid mentioning too many accusations against them in succession, hence the separation. The first hint of dissonance, the Sages claim, is in:

And they journeyed from the mountain of Hashem a distance of three days, with the Ark of the Covenant of Hashem traveling before them a distance of three days, to search out a resting place for them (10:33).

But, where is the portent of evil here? Does this not describe a continuation, albeit brief, of the harmony of the first part of Bamidbar?

The sages, however, explain that "And they journeyed from the mountain of Hashem" connotes "that they turned away from following after Hashem." The Midrash Tanchuma compares them to a child who flees from school. But, what is there here to suggest the stirrings of rebellion? 

Maharsha (R. Shmuel Eliezer ben Judah HaLevi Eidels, 1555-1631), in his commentary to Shabbat 116a, notes that "the mountain of Hashem" (using the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable "proper" Name of Hashem) always refers to permanent sanctity, as in:

“And Avraham called the name of that place [Mount Moriah] Hashem Will See, as it is said today, on the mountain of Hashem will He appear” (Bereishit 22:14), and, “Who shall ascend the mountain of Hashem, or who shall stand in His holy place?” (Psalms 24:3).

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Rabbi Avraham Fischer

Avraham Fischer is a rabbi at Darche Noam Institutions.