This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H& my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H & in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmother Channah Freidel Bas Sarah
-My great aunt Rivkah Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Aviva Malka Bas Leah
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L, Chaim Reuvein Ben Mordechai A”H, and a Z’chusfor success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus. We all need Moshiach now, please.
Towards the latter half of Parshas B’Ha’alosecha, the Torah records the beginning of a long, bumpy road for the B’nei Yisrael. It is where Sefer B’Midbar takes its turn for the worst. In a journey that should have led the B’nei Yisrael immediately into the Promised Land, they somehow managed to lead themselves wandering in circles for many years in no man’s land. Where did everything go wrong?
In truth, things were never one hundred percent perfect. Back in Shemos, the nation had previously gotten frustrated over issues relating to food and water [Shemos 15-17], they had a rough encounter with Amaleik [Ibid. 17], and they had even worshipped a Golden Calf [Ibid. 32]. Moreover, Nadav and Avihu died after trespassing in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) with an unauthorized service [Vayikra 10], and on another occasion, G-d’s Name was cursed as a result of a bitter confrontation in the camp which resulted in an unfortunate death sentence [Ibid. 24].
However, while it has been bad in the past, it seems that there has never been a downward spiral as great as the one that begins here in B’Midbar. Even if sometimes, the B’nei Yisrael had slipped up, they would always get back up. Even if they served a Golden Calf, they would spiritually recover, build a Mishkan and return to Hashem. Even if there would be people who died in that Mishkan, the rest of the people could learn from the mistakes and stay in line with Hashem’s Will. There are always bumps, but—one can see—that that doesn’t mean that all is lost. For some reason though, this negative progression in B’Midbar, somehow knocks a full generation out of the game and elongates the mission towards the Promised Land to a total of forty years!
Moreover, there is no downward spiral as confusing to understand as this one. In the larger context of the Sidrah, the nation seems to be quite obedient. The Torah writes how the B’nei Yisrael traveled and camped deferentially at G-d’s every whim [B’Midbar 9:17-23]. The Torah even reports of individuals who were concerned about being left out of the communal Pesach offering because of their ritual impurity [Ibid. 9:6-14]. They seem to be people of sound mind who were not only completely capable of, but concerned about fulfilling their obligations to G-d. They were intellectually attuned to their calling. This was a nation seemingly prepared to succeed. And yet the lowest point of this downward spiral is when the nation ultimately opts out of the mission, deciding that it does not want to enter Hashem’s Promised Land—the very same people who followed G-d faithfully into a land not sown [Yirmiyah 2:1]! They ask to be led back to Egypt. What happened?
The first moment where things seem to be wrong is when the people begin complaining for no apparent reason [11:1]; “Vayehi HaAm K’Mis’onenim…”-“And the nation became like complainers [mourners]…” The Torah does not say what triggered their incessant complaining. While later, the Torah addresses apparent issues which they had with the Manna—the heavenly food, and their apparent desire for meat and other foods they recalled eating in Egypt [11:4-10], here, we have no apparent cause for the whining; there is just unwarranted complaining. It’s very strange. Where did it come from?
And from here, everything in B’Midbar goes downhill. Because after, as was mentioned, we have the complaints about Manna versus meat [Ibid.], we then have Moshe being fed up with the people [11:11-15], we have Miriam’s slander against Moshe , the Sin of the Spies and its fallout [13-14], Korach’s rebellion and its fallout , Moshe losing his rights to enter Israel at Mei Meirvah , another attack from Amaleik [21:1], more complaining followed by a plague of fiery serpents [21:4-6], and finally, the national assimilation with the Midianites followed by another deathly plague . It wasn’t a positive time for the B’nei Yisrael. But how did it start? From this apparently baseless complaining. How could that happen? Were they not a largely obedient people? Were they not scrupulously following their obligations?
They might’ve been obedient until now, but could such complaining seriously come from a group of perfect little angels who had no issues? Did they just snap? No cause is spelled out, but what, then, could have been wrong with the B’nei Yisrael?
Indeed, general, national obedience does not necessarily mean that the people were flawless and bound to succeed no matter what. It doesn’t even mean that until now, everything was fine. Perhaps there was something that the people were lacking that we’re not told about openly. What could that be?
The M’forshim (commentators) tell us that the downward spiral did not even begin from the “complainers.” It went back slightly further. A couple of Pasukim earlier, the Torah simply says [10:33], “Vayis’u MeiHar Hashem Derech Sheloshes Yomim V’Aron Bris Hashem Nosei’a Lifneihem Derech Sheloshes Yomim Lasur Lahem Menuchah”-“And they traveled from the mountain of Hashem a three day journey, and the Ark of the Covenant of Hashem was traveling before them, a three day journey, to seek out for them rest.” What could be wrong here? The Ramban famously writes that the people fled from Sinai like children from school, as they were afraid of receiving “more commandments.” What does that mean? In other words, there was a national feeling of intolerance and apprehension, at least on some level, concerning the responsibilities that the Torah gave them. They were reluctant, hesitant—less than enthusiastic. That means that from the moment they had left Sinai, they were already on the wrong foot. Even if it was ever so subtle—yes, the Torah plays it innocently—it was still always lurking there.
If this understanding of the verse is true, then it answers the question of how things could have gone wrong. A less than enthusiastic nation can get easily fed up. But, how can one just assume that that’s true—that they “fled” from Sinai? Where does the Ramban get off reading that into the larger context? The Torah could’ve spelled it out if they were so reluctant to receive Hashem’s commandments. Moreover, this picture Ramban paints on the B’nei Yisrael, before this downward spiral, is not the image we’ve seen until now. Yes, they’ve had their slipups, but now, they were on a roll, weren’t they? Are we just to assume that the people had burned out? All of a sudden, the national morale was so low that they lost control? What lowered their morale so terribly? Where was the enthusiasm that led them into the desert in the first place? Where was the enthusiasm that led them to say “Na’aseh V’Nishma”-“We will do and we will listen [obey]” [Shemos 24:7]? Where was the enthusiasm through which they built a Mishkan for Hashem? What indication do we have that the people struggled internally with the larger mission of serving Hashem and following Him to the Promised Land?
We don’t hear anything outwardly about the nation’s second guessing the mission in the Torah, but we do we hear of such feelings from one particular individual. Just before we hear about the national journey toward the Promised Land, the Torah records a discussion between Moshe Rabbeinu and his father-in-law [10:29-32].
Although Moshe’s father-in-law is known widely as Yisro, here, the Torah refers to him as “Chovav,” a name connoting affection. Chazzal say that he was called Chovav because of his affection for the Torah [Rashi to 10:29, Sifrei 78]. Indeed, he, like the B’nei Yisrael, started off in the nation enthusiastically and followed Hashem with such fervor. He left the luxuries of his home behind to be with Hashem and His Torah [Rashi to Shemos 18:5 quoting the Mechilta]. And all of sudden, this conversation happened…
So, what was this conversation about? Moshe requests that Yisro or Chovav continue on with the nation as they go to the Promised Land. For some reason, though, Yisro actually opts out, at least initially, and expresses his preference to return to his homeland (probably in Midian). Moshe then pleads that Yisro not leave them. Moshe refers to Yisro as the “eyes” of the nation, a powerful intellectual guide for them. They need him. Moshe further bargains and assures that Hashem will grant him goodness if he comes. And that’s about the last we’re told before the B’nei Yisrael would ultimately take their leave from Sinai.
The obvious question is: Well, what did Yisro decide? Did he go home or did he stay with the B’nei Yisrael? The Torah doesn’t say! And with that, we move onto the next most obvious question here: Why doesn’t the Torah tell us what he decided?
What Yisro ultimately decided is subject to dispute among the commentators; Ibn Ezra and Sforno among others say that he returned home. Yet, the Ramban assumes that he actually was convinced at went along with the B’nei Yisrael.
But, why doesn’t the Torah say what he did? The Torah could have at least given some closure to the conversation. “And the matter was good in the eyes of Chovav.” “And the matter was bad in the eyes of Chovav.” “And so Chovav went with them.” “Regardless, Chovav returned home.” Give us something! Why didn’t the Torah spell out Yisro’s response?
It could be that the Torah is trying to tell us that really, for the purposes of the larger narrative, it doesn’t matter what Yisro decided. Whether he quietly and possibly reluctantly conceded to go along, or he quietly maintained his original stance and returned home, the very conversation and his hesitance said it all. Whatever Yisro believed in intellectually and whatever enthusiasm he might’ve had before, he hadn’t completely committed his heart to the mission, and eventually, his inspiration faded resulting in his current dilemma. “To go” or “Not to go”? That is the question—a question which never existed before. If one thinks about it, it is strange that it even is a question to begin with. When Yisro joined, wasn’t it always a no-brainer that he was joining them for good? Why is it even a conversation now? He is Chovav! He loves the Torah way, no? Apparently though, he had grown at least somewhat jaded, and now had cold feet. His youthful enthusiasm for the national journey to the Promised Land was not the same. Now, Moshe has to debate with him over the matter. What Yisro decided in the end doesn’t matter. It was enough that the professed “eyes” of the people was having second thoughts. This conversation might’ve marked the beginning of the end. It might’ve led to the national apprehension.
The B’nei Yisrael, like Yisro, had a fire, but then they, like Yisro, stopped short and second guessed their mission. They weren’t completely in doubt of their day to day obligations—Yisro as well knew intellectually that G-d’s morals are the truth—but they had doubts about the mission at large. They knew intellectually that Hashem is charge and that they were obligated to follow Him all the way. However, they did not have the same enthusiasm for the mission which they used to have. And as is illustrated by Yisro, even the most intellectually sound and the most religiously obedient can slip away when the passion dies down, when the value for the mission begins to lessen in one’s heart.
And once the value is no longer there for the people, when they no longer feel the same enthusiasm, when they’ve “sobered down” and grown jaded—even when they’ve been so “Frum” (religiously steadfast) and obedient until now, they begin to practically mourn themselves, cynically complaining about anything available. And as the Torah narrative demonstrates, there does not always have to be a cause or apparent reason. This type of complaining is not a response to some problem. Their issue, in fact, was not necessarily any external matter, but it was their attitude. Their persistent, unwarranted complaining is proof of that. When one grows cynical and decides to indefinitely become the Devil’s Advocate, one doesn’t need a reason to complain. It’s natural. This attitude problem all starts from tireless engagement in something that one does not truly have the passion for. The B’nei Yisrael started off strong but slowly lost that passion.
The problem of the generation, as is the problem of perhaps every generation, is that they stopped believing in their youthful passion, the dreams that used to inspire them, the love and value for the Torah that led to their scrupulous obedience. They began to act only because they “had to,” and not because it was the essence of their life. It stopped becoming something they loved, but merely a chore that they had to get over with and tolerate as long as necessary. They looked at their obligations as just that—obligations, divorced from a larger mission which is supposed to permanently enhance their attitudes and help them grow as a people and as servants of G-d. That mission saw them, not merely obeying commands, but purposefully serving Hashem with fervor, working towards a goal of being close to Him. Torah is not just an intellectual pursuit, nor is it just a list of practical obligations—it is a process of spiritual self-actualization and connecting to Hashem. It is a goal to live up to those youthful aspirations and ambitions that drive us to him.
The goal for us should be to train ourselves no differently than the way we’d hope to implement Chinuch (religious education) in the lives of our children. Yes, we work on adhering to and obeying the commandments and Halachah (law). We attempt to generate the same progress for the next generation. We work on sustaining a religious home. However Chinuch is not just about conveying religious “facts” and intellectually educating the children about their obligations. It is more about ingraining religious values, stirring an eternal passion and a sense of personal commitment. If the values are felt and if the heart is stirred properly, then the knowledge of the laws and obligations will be picked up naturally. Moreover, they will not be dropped when the going gets tough, because the people will be truly invested in what they are doing and not complain at every turn. They would stay on the Derech (path) of their youth. “To go or not go” would not even be a question. The outpouring of Chibah (affection) which we will have for Hashem and His Torah would be so immense that we will see no other option. Without a second thought, certainly without a single complaint, of course we’re going!
May we all be Zocheh to develop and maintain our excitement, inspiration and eternal passion for spiritual growth and improvement in Avodas Hashem and Torah observance, and Hashem should continually lead us on the proper Derech towards the Promised Land with the coming of the Geulah in the days of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂