​ The Mysterious Mitonenim and the Meshekh Chokhma

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley


Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion











Parashat Beha'alotekha is like no other parasha in the Torah [1] in the extent to which it takes off with great optimism and then crashes hard, with tales of failure and missed opportunities.  The first half continues and completes Sefer Bamidbar's earlier themes: the conclusion of the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) culminates with the lighting of the Menora (Bamidbar 8:1-4), the purification of the Levites (8:5-26), and the offering of the Pesach sacrifice in the desert (9:1-14); the rules of following the cloud (9:15-23) and the making of the silver trumpets (10:1-10) signal that the people are ready for their final three-day trek to Eretz Yisrael (10:11-36).  Then the parasha's fateful second half brings a litany of complaints, with corresponding displays of God's fury.  In rabbinic thought, the complaints range from the hardships of the journey and the new limitations placed on sexual relations, to the nature and lack of variety of the food (11:1-10).  Moshe complains that his job is nigh impossible (11:11-15), Moshe's student complains about renegade prophets running amok within the camp (11:26-29), and Moshe's siblings complain about his apparently self-serving and self-aggrandizing behavior (12:1).  God's wrath is not long in coming:  He strikes with fire "the edge of the camp" (11:1); He strikes those who crave meat excessively at the "Graves of Desire" (11:32-34).  Even Miriam, his beloved prophetess, is not immune; she is struck the tzara'at plague (12:10-16).




How does the joyous encampment of the Jewish people around Mount Sinai degenerate into contention, confrontation, and even insurrection?  The discrepancy between the two sections, that of stasis and security versus the insecurity of the people in their movement, is so dramatic that the Torah resorts to a punctuation device used nowhere else: parentheses, in the form of an inverted letter nun. 




When the Ark would go forward, Moshe would say, "Arise, God, and scatter your enemies; and let your haters flee before You."  When it would stop, he would say: "Return, God, the myriads of Israel's thousands."  (Bamidbar 10:35-36)


The Torah places symbols before and after these verses to indicate that this is not the correct place for this section.  Why then was it said here?  To provide a separation between one tragedy and another tragedy…  (Rashi, ad loc.)




This is the view of Rabban Shimon ben Gamli'el (Shabbat 116a), and it is not for naught that Rabbi Yonatan, based on this, teaches that the sections of our parasha are so different from one another that they are considered separate books (with the passage inside the parentheses considered a new book in its own right).








What triggers the people's downfall?  Let us examine the verses of the first insurrection (11:1-3):




The people were like complainers in God's ears; and God heard, and His anger was incensed; and God's fire burned against them, and it devoured the edge of the camp.


And the people cried to Moshe, and he prayed to God, and the fire died down. 


The place was called Tavera, for God's fire had burned (va'ara) against them.




We note several anomalies reading these concise, striking verses.  Most notably, the Torah does not specify the people's grievance.  As we have seen in the past and will see again within several verses, the Torah never hesitates to elucidate what motivates the people's complaints.  Yet here, the Torah dedicates more narrative space to the form of God's punishment, deadly fire.  During the day, the symbol of God's Divine Presence among the people is the cloud which rests over the Mishkan, and "in the evening there would be upon the Mishkan a fiery appearance until morning" (9:15) — now, this fire has become transformed into the instrument of retribution and punishment.  Also of significance is the people's immediate reaction and Moshe's unhesitating willingness to intercede on their behalf.  Who are these mitonenim (complainers), and what do they want?  A quick survey of the commentators reveals a variety of opinions:




The word "mitonenim" expresses nothing but pretext, for they were seeking an excuse to move away from the Omnipresent.  Similarly, it says of Shimshon, "for he was seeking a pretext (to'ana)" (Shofetim 14:4)…  [They spoke] "in God's ears," so that He would become angry.  They said: Woe is to us!  How much we have struggled on this journey, three days' [marching] without respite, with all the suffering along the way!  (Rashi)




The word "mitonenim" is derived from the root "aven" (wickedness); similarly, we find, "machshevot onekh," "your evil thoughts" (Yirmiyahu 4:14).(The Ibn Ezra)




If the meaning of "mitonenim" were wickedness, why would the Torah conceal their sin and not tell it, as it does in other places!  To me, the correct interpretation appears to be that as they got further away from Mount Sinai (which was near a habitable settlement)  and entered the "great and dreadful wilderness" (Devarim 1:19) in their first journey, they became upset and said: What shall we do?  How shall we live in this wilderness?  What shall we eat, what shall we drink?  How shall we endure the trouble and the suffering? When shall we come out of here?


The word "mitonenim" is related to the expression, "For what shall a living person yitonen (complain)?" (Eikha 3:39), which is an expression of feeling pain and feeling sorry for oneself.  When the Torah states that they felt anxious and upset, it thereby expresses the nature of their sin… and this is evil in God's eyes, since they should have followed Him "with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, by reason of the abundance of all good things" (Devarim 28:47) which He had given them, but they behave like people acting under duress and compulsion, complaining and murmuring.  (The Ramban)




"Like complainers" — regarding the travails of the road; not that they truly complain, for they have no legitimate reason to complain.  Rather, they complain, with their words, in order to test [God].  (The Seforno)




We have not found explicitly in Scripture what being an onen means here; however, the verse never comes to obscure, but to explain.  Since we do find two complaints [below], one being "We remember the fish" (v. 5) and the second being "crying over its families" (v. 10) — concerning forbidden sexual relationships, etc. (see Yoma 75a) — certainly the entire passage has one theme, and it is all one complaint…  This is the meaning of the passage: after they hear (10:36), "Return, God, the myriads of Israel's thousands," which encourages them to fulfill the mitzva of being fruitful and multiplying, to [reproduce] like fish, they immediately think in their hearts about the forbidden relationships; for this is the [symbolism of the] inverted nun.  Therefore the evil people are "like complainers" — it does not say: complainers, but "like complainers," ke-mitonenim, with the comparative prefix kaf — saying: We are just like an onen (mourner), for whom sexual intercourse is forbidden, because we cannot have sex with any woman!  (The Keli Yakar)




While Moshe greets the guidance of God… with completely objective devotion, happily being at one with God's will… the people are far away from such spiritual perfection.  The people, in contrast to Moshe, are "mitonenim" – as if they are in mourning over themselves…  The Cloud of God only makes them feel cut off from the rest of the world, with its requirements for normal life.  (Rav S. R. Hirsch)




They are not complainers, but "like complainers," for they do not protest aloud, but in the confines of their hearts.  They had not envisioned their redemption, that of the chosen nation, as it unfolds.  They had expected their redemption to be total and complete, with all physical and spiritual benefit coming to them effortlessly and immediately.  They are discomfited to discover that they have to undergo another series of tests and deprivations before entering the Land of Israel.  (The Da'at Soferim)








Comparing the above interpretations, we note one common denominator.  Whether the grievance is justified or not; whether the commentator notes a specific issue (the vicissitudes of travel, the additional prohibitions) or not; whether the commentator understands the mitonenim's frustrations as stemming from general existential angst and ennui — in any case, all identify the journey as the immediate cause of the nation's discontent.  The transition from a people encamped to a people in motion leads to the expression, whether verbal or otherwise, of the nation's deepest hesitations and trepidations.  Consequently, the interpretation of the Meshekh Chokhma is original, stunning, even astonishing:




As the Sages have already stated (Sifrei 64), "There is no chronological order in the Torah"…  For God commands that the Israelites and Levites be counted and placed by their flags around the Mishkan; when this is completed, the order is given to begin their travels.  It is at this point in time that the people begin to complain that the service of God has been taken from them and transferred to the Levites!  This is a huge sin, showing that they do not comprehend the severity and scope of their transgression at the sin of the Golden Calf…




So that we can fully appreciate the ramifications of the Meshekh Chokhma's interpretation, let us return to the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.  As part of the covenantal ceremony, we find that "the Israelite youths… offered sacrifices" (Shemot 24:5).  Who are these youths?  Rashi (ad loc.), based on the Gemara (Zevachim 115b), identifies them as "the firstborns."  Indeed, until the sin of the Golden Calf, this is the intended hierarchy: instead of the kohanim and Levites performing the Divine service, each family is to send one representative of its own to the Mishkan.  God's original and ideal intention envisions a situation wherein everyone feels directly connected to the rites performed and the offerings brought on the people's behalf.  Suddenly, with the sin of the Golden Calf and the subsequent replacement of the firstborn in the Mishkan with the Levites, the rites and services become the exclusive province and privilege of a limited few, as opposed to the domain of all; even worse, those chosen are Moshe's kinsmen!  This is the root of the people's bitterness, which ignores their own complicity and relegates the Levites' heroic behavior in the Golden Calf episode (Shemot 32:26-29) to the sidelines.  That the Meshekh Chokhma continues his commentary with a quote from the end of Korach's rebellion is no accident.  Underneath all the pomp and ceremony of Sefer Bamidbar's opening chapters lie deep fissures and rifts among the Jewish people.  The resentment, the feeling of entitlements lost remains an open sore.  The first signs of discontent, the first cracks in the veneer have begun to appear; and as they head to the Promised Land, they will only grow.




[1] With the possible exception of Parashat Bereishit, which begins with the optimistic creation of the world, culminating in the verse "And God saw all that He had done, and it was VERY GOOD" (1:31); yet, by the end of the parasha, God's "regrets" (6:6-7) ever having created humanity, leading to His plan to eradicate all life in the Flood.