“Moses Realizes that His Dreams Were Not Going to be Fulfilled”
by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
Parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha is one of the richest parashiot in the Torah with respect to scriptural narrative and Jewish law. The parasha contains many fascinating themes that, at times, do not seem to easily correlate with one another.
Despite having reviewed this parasha many times and having frequently analyzed its contents, it is always heartening to find that, as with all of Torah, there is always much more to learn. It is especially exciting when an original thinker, such as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explores the parasha and adds his profound, and at times, eclectic, insights to the discussion.
About midway through the parasha, in Numbers 9:15, the Torah relates that on the day that the Tabernacle was finally erected, a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, remaining there during the day, and at night a fire appeared that remained there until morning. We are also informed that the People of Israel traveled according to the word of G-d, and that only when G-d gave the signal did the four camps begin to travel. Once the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle and began to move forward, the priests sounded their silver trumpets, the Levites immediately began to dismantle the Tabernacle, and the various camps and tribes of Israel began to move.
Since Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, possessed great knowledge of the wilderness, Moses, in Numbers 10:29, appealed to Jethro to remain with the Israelites as they travel, and to serve as the peoples’ “eyes.”
For the very first time, the Torah, in Numbers 10:35-36, reports the Ark being lifted, leading the people in their journey.
Rabbi Soloveitchik describes the excitement that Moses most likely felt at the time of this inaugural journey. This was not a test run, but the actual fulfillment of a lifetime of dreams of Moses and all the People of Israel to enter the Promised Land. Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that in this case there were “no delays, no procrastination, no ifs…It is going to happen right now, not tomorrow, right now, Nohs’im ah’nahch’noo–נֹסְעִים אֲנַחְנוּ, present tense, we are traveling now!” (Numbers 10:29). He [Moses] was certain that he would soon climb to the top of Mount Lebanon…there was no doubt about his destiny!
Moses and the Children of Israel were literally days away from fulfilling their dream. There was no need for scouts to reconnoiter the Promised Land or to assess the quality of its inhabitants.
Rashi quoting the Sifre notes that because the Al-mighty wanted to bring the people directly into the land of Israel, they miraculously traversed a distance that would normally take three days, in a single day.
But, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, the great dream of entering the land was not to be. This time it was not because of the worship of a Golden Calf or of any other idol, and not because of the failure of the spirit of the People of Israel who were taken in by the negative reports of the scouts. It was, because, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, the people had apparently subtly adopted an alien way of life, a pagan way of life. More than G-d detests the idols themselves, He detests their way of life. Sooner or later, an intelligent person will realize that an idol is but wood and metal, empty of all content and meaning. The pagan way of life, however, has powerful deceitful attraction for its followers, leading to a decadent lifestyle and degenerate behavior.
What was the peoples’ sin that so changed the course of Jewish destiny?
When the people cried for meat and G-d brought them the Slav, the quail, the Torah in Numbers 11:32 reports, וַיָּקָם הָעָם כָּל הַיּוֹם הַהוּא וְכָל הַלַּיְלָה וְכֹל יוֹם הַמָּחֳרָת, וַיַּאַסְפוּ אֶת הַשְּׂלָו, and the people rose up all that day and all the night, and all the next day, and gathered the quail. Obsessed with desire, the gluttonous people completely lost control. So uninhibited was their behavior that the wrath of G-d was kindled, resulting in the deaths of those who lusted. As Numbers 11:34 testifies, the peoples’ profligate actions were immortalized, and the place was to be known forever as קִבְרוֹת הַתַּאֲוָה, the Graves of those who Lusted.
Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that the peoples’ behavior was particularly egregious because the Israelites had previously demonstrated that they knew how to act properly. He points out that the proper, Jewish way of satisfying desires, is portrayed in the Torah in Exodus 16. There Scripture reports that when the people hungered for food, G-d brought down the Heavenly bread, known as Manna. In Exodus 16:17-18, the Torah relates that when collecting the Manna, the People of Israel did as G-d had commanded them, וַיִּלְקְטוּ, הַמַּרְבֶּה וְהַמַּמְעִיט. וַיָּמֹדּוּ בָעֹמֶר וְלֹא הֶעְדִּיף הַמַּרְבֶּה, וְהַמַּמְעִיט לֹא הֶחְסִיר. אִישׁ לְפִי אָכְלוֹ לָקָטוּ, Whoever took more and whoever took less, they measured an Omer. And whoever took more had nothing extra and whoever took less was not lacking; everyone according to what he eats had they gathered. Contrary to prevailing belief, true enjoyment can be achieved through economic limitedness rather than excess.
In stark contrast, when Moses saw the decadent behavior of the Jewish people who lusted for meat, he knew that not only were the people doomed, but that his dreams would be undone, as well. This generation would not enter the Holy Land and neither would Moses.
The verses, Numbers 10:35, וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן, signaling the transport of the Ark, that was supposed to lead Moses and the people into the Promised Land, now leads them away from the Promised Land. That is why there are two inverted “Nuns” on either side of the verses. Jewish history became inverted. No longer can it be said, “Nos’eem ah’nach’noo,” we are surely traveling to the Promised Land as Moses had said previously with profound assurance.
The people must first rid themselves of the decadent pagan values. Only then, can they enter the Promised Land, the sensitive Holy Land that rejects unholy behavior.
May you be blessed.