Yeshivat Har Etzion
The Books of Bemidbar
By Rav Yair Kahn
Our Sages taught: The Holy One placed markers before and after the parasha "Vayehi bi-nesoa ha-aron vayomer Moshe" ("And when the Ark traveled, Moshe said," Bemidbar 10:35-36) to indicate that this is not its proper place.
Rebbi said: That is not the reason [for the markers], but rather they indicate that this section is considered a Sefer in itself.
Rabbi Shemuel bar Nachman in the name of Rabbi Yonatan expounded the verse, "She hewed seven pillars" (Mishlei 9:1) - this refers to the seven books of the Torah. Who does this [exposition] follow? It follows Rebbi [who held that Bemidbar was really composed of three books]. (Shabbat 115b-116a)
According to Rebbi, the parasha of "Vayehi bi-nesoa" is the dividing point of Sefer Bemidbar. In fact, Rebbi goes even farther, considering the sections of Bemidbar before and after this parasha as independent books. A quick overview of Bemidbar is sufficient to reveal the sharp contrast which underlies Rebbi's position.
As we noted in previous shiurim, the sefer begins with the establishment of "machaneh Yisrael" (the camp of Israel) in preparation of their march to Eretz Yisrael. In the opening section, these preparations proceed without a hitch. The structure of the community is developed along with its various subdivisions. Social and religious leaders are selected and awarded their respective roles. The individuals with their singular characteristics are interwoven into the communal fabric. The interaction between the various institutions is clarified.
At the beginning of our parasha, we find a ripe nation with a carefully developed social structure, seemingly ready to play their role in the unfolding of Jewish destiny. Final marching instructions are issued (Bemidbar 9:15-10:10) and the campaign begins.
In the second year, on the twentieth day of the second month, the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle of the Pact and the Israelites set out on their journeys from the wilderness of Sinai. The cloud came to rest in the wilderness of Paran. (Bemidbar 10:11-12)
The Torah describes in detail the impressive coordination as the entire "machaneh" begins to march in perfect harmony. The tribes, guided by their leaders, unite to march together under pre-determined banners. Each banner, under which unite three tribes, assumes its rightful position. The dismantling and reconstruction of the mishkan is attended to by the Levites, who blend in and join the march, as an entire nation, led by the Almighty, begin their dramatic campaign through the wilderness, on their way to the promised land.
At this point, a dialogue takes place between Moshe and his father in-law, which is both fascinating and revealing.
Moshe said to Chovav son of Reuel the Midianite, Moshe's father-in-law, "We are setting out for the place of which the Lord has said, 'I will give it to you,' Come with us and we will be generous with you; for the Lord has promised to be generous to Israel."
"I will not go," he replied to him, "but will return to my native land."
He said, "Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide (Lit. "eyes"). So if you come with us, we will extend to you the same bounty that the Lord grants us." (Bemidbar 10:29-32)
Moshe tries to convince his father in-law to join the children of Israel on their monumental journey. It is clear from his comments that Moshe considered the arrival in Eretz Yisrael as imminent. In fact, we are told that the border of Eretz Yisrael is a mere eleven-day march from Sinai.
It is eleven days from Chorev to Kadesh-barnea by the Mount Seir route. (Devarim 1:2)
However, more significant is the multiple use of the term "tov." In these few sentences, this word is repeated in various forms five separate times. It seems clear that Moshe was referring to something other than the inheritance of the land of Israel, which is mentioned explicitly. "Tov" appears to be a veiled reference to something else. What was Moshe hinting at, and why couldn't it be mentioned explicitly?
Rav Soloveitchik zt"l interpreted this term as an eschatological reference. Accordingly, Moshe believed that if he would succeed in bringing the children of Israel into the land of Israel, Jewish destiny would be realized. A mere eleven-day march separated the children of Israel from the Messianic age.
We reach the section of "Vayehi bi-nesoa" after the Jewish people successfully complete the first leg of their journey.
They marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord traveled in front of them on that three days' journey to seek out a resting place for them; and the Lord's cloud kept above them by day, as they moved on from camp. (Bemidbar 10:33-34)
Until this point, everything has proceeded according to schedule. All the instructions preparing the children of Israel for their momentous campaign were fulfilled with precision. Everything is ready to begin the march. The excitement and tension reach a crescendo as the journey towards the fulfillment of Jewish destiny begins. The inheritance of Eretz Yisrael and redemption of the Jewish people seem almost inevitable. There is a sense of excitement and urgency as the first segment of sefer Bemidbar abruptly ends.
Following the breaking-point of the sefer, namely, the parasha of "Vayehi bi-nesoa," we witness a dramatic shift. The "machaneh" begins to malfunction.
The people took to complaining bitterly before the Lord. The Lord heard and was incensed: a fire of the Lord broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp. (Bemidbar 11:1)
Some commentators explain that this refers to the failure of the fringe groups among the general population.
"Ravaging the outskirts of the camp" - this refers to the foreigners, who were located at the fringes of the camp. (Yalkut Shimoni, Bemidbar 11, #732)
However, others understand that it includes the errors of the leadership as well.
Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia explained: "Ravaging the outskirts (ketzei) of the camp" - this refers to the leaders (ketzinim) among them, the great ones among them. (Ibid.)
This episode is followed by a more serious event:
The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelite wept and said, "If only we had meat to eat!" (Bemidbar 11:4)
Once again, the problem is initiated by groups which are peripheral; however, this time it quickly spreads to the very heart of the camp. Furthermore, the crisis of leadership deepens as well, as Moshe considers himself incompetent to deal with the crisis.
And Moshe said to the Lord, "Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant,' to the land that You have promised on oath to their fathers? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people, when they whine before me and say, 'Give us meat to eat!' 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, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!" (Bemidbar 11:11-15)
Eventually, the needs of the people are attended to, however, the leadership has to be restructured. Moreover, Moshe's esteem has been tarnished and his position undermined. The precariousness of Moshe's position finds expression in the strange and almost hysterical reaction to the public prophecy of Eldad and Medad.
Two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad, had remained in camp; yet the spirit rested upon them - they were among those recorded, but they had not gone out to the Tent - and they prophesied in the camp. A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, "Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in thcamp!" And Yehoshua son of Nun, Moshe's attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, "My lord Moshe, restrain them!" (Bemidbar 11:26-28)
It would appear that the following episode, in which Miriam and Aharon challenge Moshe's behavior vis-a-vis his wife, does not only reflect a further deterioration as both Aharon and Miriam falter, but is also a further expression of Moshe's failing image. Their argument -
"Has the Lord spoken only through Moshe? Has He not spoken through us as well?" (Bemidbar 12:2)
- is a direct result of Eldad and Medad's public prophecy. God's reaction is a reflection of the need to reaffirm the singularity and uniqueness of Moshe as a prophet.
And He said, "Hear these My words: When a prophet of the Lord rises among you, I make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moshe; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moshe!" (Bemidbar 12:6-8)
Thus, following the parasha of "Vayehi bi-nesoa," there is a steady decline. The institutions that had been established begin to malfunction. The communal fabric that had been woven together so carefully starts unraveling.
Moreover, the entire mood of the people has changed. After traveling the initial three-day journey, the children of Israel are a mere eight-day march from the promised land. However, the request of meat results in a month's delay.
You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you... (Bemidbar 11:19-20)
Aharon's and Miriam's challenge to Moshe results in an additional seven-day delay. The sense of impending redemption that had existed prior to "Vayehi bi-nesoa" has dissipated. The tension and excitement has been replaced as the children of Israel camp in the Wilderness of Paran on Rosh Chodesh Tamuz, forty days before Tisha Be-Av and the dramatic events which will change the course of Jewish history (i.e. the report of the spies and the people's rejection of the land of Israel).
The parasha of "Vayehi bi-nesoa" is the point of transition between the ideal "machaneh" in their triumphant march towards the realization of Jewish destiny, and the actual failed attempt at implementation. These two sections describe two separate stories. Moreover, according to Rebbi these two stories are actually two independent Books. In previous shiurim, we developed the idea that "chumash ha-pekudim" describes the geographical and spiritual journey from Sinai to the border of Eretz Yisrael. The first section of Bemidbar is a completely independent book insofar as it describes the ideal model of this journey, which was completed in the hearts of the Jewish people, but came to a screeching halt before they reached their geographical destination. The latter version of Bemidbar details the actual journey, which began with the failure of the first generation, but was eventually completed by their children.
However, the opinion of Rebbi includes an additional point which is perplexing. According to Rebbi, the parasha of "Vayehi bi-nesoa" itself is given independent status and considered as a separate book. What is so significant about this parasha? Why is it singled out and awarded such prominence?
In my opinion, even according to Rebbi, there are only two versions of Sefer Bemidbar, the ideal one which precedes "Vayehi bi-nesoa," and the one of actual implementation which follows it. The parasha of "Vayehi bi-nesoa" is not to be viewed as a significant section of Sefer Bemidbar. Rather, it should be perceived as the ideal form of Sefer Devarim. After all, Sefer Devarim is comprised mainly of the sermons Moshe Rabbeinu delivered on the shores of the Jordan, whose aim was to ensure that the children of Israel successfully inherit the promised land, and that they behave in a manner that will allow them to remain there. Devarim begins:
These are the words that Moshe addressed to all Israel... (Devarim 1:1)
The book we call Sefer Devarim is suitable for the situation that developed after "Vayehi bi-nesoa." Moshe addressed himself to a new generation that would enter Eretz Yisrael without him (following the divine decree that the generation of the exodus would die in the desert, and that Moshe himself would not enter the Land of Israel). Sefer Devarim, as it is written, flows from the tragic events of Sefer Bemidbar.
The parasha of "Vayehi bi-nesoa," however, is the ideal version of Sefer Devarim, which conforms to the ideal model of Bemidbar described prior to "Vayehi bi-nesoa." Had the entire nation consummated their momentous march toward the realization of their destiny in the coordinated and harmonious fashion described before "Vayehi bi-nesoa," with Moshe Rabbeinu at their head and the Shekina in their midst, all that Moshe would have had to say was two short sentences.
When the Ark was to set out, Moshe would say:
Advance, O Lord
May Your enemies be scattered,
And may Your foes flee before You!
And when it halted, he would say:
Return, O Lord, You who are Israel's myriads of thousands! (Bemidbar 1:35-36)
Before closing, I would like to clarify one basic point. Why according to Rebbi, did the Torah focus upon the ideal Bemidbar and Devarim? After all, in reality these ideals were never realized.
This question would be irresolvable if we would look at the Torah merely as documentation of past events. Historically, the initial drive was never consummated, and therefore it seems to have no significance. However, the Torah is not a history book, and therefore it is not necessarily bound by historical criteria. From the Torah's perspective, the ideal Bemidbar contains a truth transcending the events that actually occurred. The ideal Bemidbar does exist, even though it has yet to take place. It was merely prevented on the practical level by certain human frailties and local conditions. However, it contains a profound truth about the essence of Am Yisrael, their relationship to God and the fulfillment of their destiny. It is this truth which is the source of our paradoxical yet undying faith in the redemptive process, as we continue to believe that a time will come when this ideal will become reality.
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