How The Trouble Began

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

Commentary on Parashat Beha'alotcha, Numbers 8:1 - 12:16

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).

On the other hand, Mount Sinai/Chorev, where the Torah was given, did not retain the same level of sanctity after the Revelation. When Hashem does associate His Name with it, it is always with the more general and detached Name Elokim, as in:

“And Moshe rose up, and his minister Yehoshua, and Moshe went up to the mountain of Elokim” (Exodus 24:13), and, “And he [Eliyahu] arose and ate and drank and went in the strength of that meal forty days and forty nights unto Chorev the mountain of Elokim” (I Kings 19:8).

Our verse, “And they journeyed from the mountain of Hashem” is the only occasion in the Tanach wherein Sinai is called the mountain of Hashem.

The Children of Israel disencumbered themselves as they departed from Sinai. Their attitude, as reflected in the words of the verse, demonstrated that they were distancing themselves from Hashem and the sanctity of the Torah, like a student who leaves his learning behind him in the schoolhouse. Their frame of mind was the root cause of all subsequent tragedies.

R. Moshe Chayim Luzzatto
(1707-1746) writes in Mesillat Yesharim, The Path of the Just (ch. I):

When you examine the matter you will see that the only true perfection is attachment to Him, may He be blessed. This is what King David says, “And as for me, closeness to Hashem is my good” (Psalms 73:28). . . . For if man is drawn to this world and distances himself from his Creator, behold he is ruined and he ruins the world with him. But if he controls himself and is attached to his Creator and makes use of the world only as an aid in serving his Creator, then he is elevated and the world itself is elevated with him.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook
(1865-1935), in “The Pangs of Cleansing,” writes:

The attachment to God in feeling will have its effect in directing life on an upright path to the extent that this basic principle is operative in the soul, in a state of purity. . . . All the troubles of the world, especially the spiritual, such as grief, impatience, disillusionment, despair, the truly basic troubles of man–they came about only because of the failure to view clearly the majesty of God. . . . No grandeur of God is then manifest in the soul, but only the lowliness of wild imaginings, that conjure up a form of some deceptive, vague, angry deity that is dissociated from reality.

When the Children of Israel detach themselves from Hashem, all their troubles result. It will take many years, and much effort, to revive the attachment that we once enjoyed at Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah).

Reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.


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