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The Great Reversal (1)

  • Rav Alex Israel





The VBM is happy to announce a new book
by alumnus and VBM author Rav Michael Hattin

Passages: Text and Transformation in the Parsha


Inspired by many years of shiurim written for this series!

Congratulations Rav Hattin!






By Rav Alex Israel




Our parasha presents us with many unusual phenomena which puzzle the reader and leave him in a state of confusion, wondering how to solve the peculiarities of the narrative. It is a complex parasha where each individual strand seems connected to another strand elsewhere. Let us begin with some questions which will give us a key to an understanding of the parasha as a whole.


First, the unusual conduct of Moses. Chapter 11 describes a strange episode - a mass craving for meat on the part of the Israelites. It is presented by the Torah as something of an epidemic, described as a “gluttonous craving” (11:4) beginning with a small group and rapidly spreading to the entire nation, the entire nation proclaim their dislike of the Manna and demand meat. What we have here is simply a complaint for food on the part of the people. Nothing more. They transgress no law, no formal sin is committed. This is not a rerun of the Golden Calf. But the reaction to this episode is severe, a plague ensues, the verse records how “The Lord was very angry.” (v.10)


But there is none more severe, more unexpected than Moses’ reaction to the entire episode. The verses describe how Moses loses his nerve in the face of this crisis. Totally uncharacteristic of Moses, he gives up! Moreover, he virtually hands in his resignation to God.


“Moses 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 this people upon me? Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that you should say to me, “carry them in your bosom as a nursing mother carries an infant” to the land that you promised...? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people ... ? I cannot bear this people by myself. It is too much for me! ... kill me rather, I beg you...’” (11:11-15)


Strong words. But completely out of character for Moses. After all, the Moses that we know and love, is the heroic defender of the Children of Israel. In every instance, Moses is prepared to represent Israel as the defense attorney before God pleading their case aggressively, even to the point of demanding their forgiveness from the Almighty. Up to this point in the Bible, and subsequently, we will see Moses boldly confront God’s anger; praying, requesting, arguing on behalf of that stiff-necked nation that he leads so faithfully. But here it would seem, Moses has a crisis. He does not fight for Israel. We look on as Moses, the great leader, asks to be relieved of his position. His determination wavers and he suffers - from exhaustion, from self-doubt, from desperation. He wishes to rid himself of the crushing responsibility, and the seemingly impossible task that he has been set.


Our first question. What caused this crisis within Moses? What is so drastic about this rebellion that it lead to a complete collapse of Moses’s resolve? We have seen the Israelites request food in the wilderness before (see Ex. Ch.15-17), we have been through the great sin of the Golden Calf. Each time Moses stands firm. What happened here?




But if we look at the last two lines of Chapter 10, we will see a second issue which is beckoning for our attention. It is two lines which seem to be in parenthesis. In the Torah text, we see a paragraph of two verses surrounded by two upside down letters. The letters are the parenthesis like letter - “nun” and in a most unusual phenomenon, unique in the Torah, the letters are inverted. What does this represent? What does it mean? Is this short passage actually being marginalized or highlighted? - Or does this notation have another meaning within the ancient symbolism of the Torah? The Rabbis of the Talmud note that these markings denote that this parasha is somehow “out of place,” displaced, dislocated. What does that mean?


Let us move to some answers. In the course of our investigation of these issues, we will uncover a hidden, rather unexpected drama unfolding within the very fabric of our parasha.




Let us begin the story all the way back in Egypt. At Moses’s very appointment to leadership - the vision at the burning bush - God outlines the grand scope of the mission:


“I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey, the land of the Canaanites...” (Exodus 3:8)


The immediate destination would seem to be the Land of Canaan, fulfilling promises to the patriarchs that “your seed shall inherit this land." But God informs Moses that there is to be a stopping off point on the way:


“And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.” (Ex. 3:12)


On the way to the promised land, we were to “worship God at this mountain” namely Mount Sinai. (It should be noted that this conversation between Moses and God took place at “Horeb, the mountain of God” (Ex. 3:1) - otherwise known as Mount Sinai -see Deut 1:6.) What is the nature of this “worship”? Of what will it consist? Apparently, as we see subsequently, it implies first, receiving the Torah, and afterwards, the construction and consecration of the Mishkan - the Holy Tabernacle.


Events begin smoothly. Only weeks after the Exodus, the people arrive at the mountain and promptly begin the preparations for the revelation at Mt. Sinai. They accept the terms of God’s covenant; they will obey God’s laws, and God will draw the people closer to him giving them national identity and holiness (see 19:5-9). The entire nation hear God speak to them from the Mountain, transmitting to them, the Ten Commandments; a set of laws which will be but a beginning of the comprehensive lifestyle that will become Judaism. And no sooner had they received the Torah, God gives them the beginnings of the Tabernacle with the command to build “an altar of earth” with which to perform the sacrifices (20:21). So there we have the basic elements of the plan; Torah and sacrifice. As soon as the Tabernacle is built, we can move to the next stage, namely, the Land of Israel.


The entire operation experiences a sever hiccup with the sin of the Golden Calf which sets the timetable back somewhat. The nation needs time to recover, Moses has to plead with God for forgiveness, there are a second set of tablets. But we have read of the completion and ceremonial dedication of the Tabernacle; “In the first month of the second year (in the desert) on the first of the month, the Tabernacle was set up.” (Ex. 40:17)




Our parasha describes the preparations for the journey to Israel in painstaking detail.[2] First is the description of the miraculous cloud which hovered above the Tabernacle. The cloud acted as a Godly signal for the journeying and encampment of the Israelites:


“And whenever the cloud lifted from the tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites encamped ... On a sign from the Lord they broke camp and on a sign from the Lord they made camp.” (9:17-23)


This camp travel with God at the helm.


The next passage describes the complex public address system within the camp. The two silver trumpets would sound long drawn notes or a short burst of notes. Accordingly, the camp would be notified in the event of a national assembly, war, celebration and all important national events. In the context of the journeying of the camp, the trumpets would be used to organize the efficient movement of the different sub-camps amongst the nation when they set out, ensuring that each group would know their marching order and the precise moment of departure.


Reading these descriptions we gain a sense of the planning, the atmosphere of mobilization which must have animated the camp. There are clear traces here, of a massive sense of expectancy and anticipation.


“In the second year, on the twentieth day of the second month, the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle… and the Israelites set out on their journey…”(10:11)


What follows is the precise movement of each division as they leave Mt. Sinai and march into the distance. In many synagogues, this section is chanted to a special ceremonial tune. Why? Because this is not just one of many journeys. The journey which the Children of Israel are embarking upon is the final leg of their mission, it is the fulfillment of a dream, of promises to ancient patriarchs. The Children of Israel set out on their march to Eretz Yisrael - the promised land. All the ceremony in the world cannot describe the feelings of this moment, the sense of anticipation and historical potential.




We have described our parasha as telling the build-up to the great march - the march to the fulfillment of the Jewish mission. It is at this juncture that the Torah tells us of an invitation extended by Moses to his father-in-law.


“We are traveling to the place of which the Lord has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be good to you for the Lord has promised good for Israel.” (11:29)


What is this story telling us? Why mention Moses’s relationship with his father-in-law? What does it add to this narrative? Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l explains that this invitation is a symbolic invitation. It is not simply a personal invitation by a son-in-law to a father-in law, by Moses to Jethro. No, this invitation is extended to the entire Gentile world.


Let us explain. The place that we are standing in Jewish History when we read Parashat Behaalotekha is an auspicious one indeed. We are standing at the verge of fulfillment, at the brink of realizing our national destiny. All the signs are in place, the culmination of Jewish history could be so easily at hand. It is this context that we invite the non-Jew, the entire world, to join us on our march to the Holy Land. Moses tells Jethro, “We are marching to our destiny. Maybe it might become your destiny too.”


The feeling that permeates the pages of Behaalotekha is one of unmistakable confidence, a serene atmosphere of total assurance. There is a strong feeling that the historic realization of God’s vision for His nation will be only a few days away. It comes through clearly in the way that Moses uses the grammatical first person when he speaks with his father-in-law. He talks with such assurance: “We are traveling….come with us and we will be good to you.” It is happening. Now. It is clear that Moses at this point thinks that he is going to enter the land. The people too are looking forward to their first view of the hills of Hebron, the valleys and fields that they have only been able to imagine until now.


A fascinating midrash expresses this sense of immediacy. The verse here tells us about the first leg of the journey; “And they set out from the mountain of God, a three day journey and the ark ... traveled before them...” (10:33). The midrash is troubled by the fact that we can talk about a three day journey. Obviously, they would have stopped for the night, and then, what is the issue of three days? The answer of the midrash:


“They (miraculously) traveled a three day journey in a single day, because God desired to have them enter the Land immediately.” (see Rashi 10:33)


The midrash just emphasizes the sense of excitement. It is as if even God Himself is caught up in the euphoria!




On this basis, when we reach the mysterious lines with the inverted ‘nuns’ we must look at this passage and ask ourselves - does it fit into the progression that we have described? Is this section a continuation, a natural outgrowth, of the narrative thus far, or are the Rabbis correct in seeing the “nun” letters as parentheses and this section as really belonging elsewhere? Let us read the content of this passage:


“When the ark set out, Moses would say:

‘Advance, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee from before you!’

And when it rested, he would say:

‘Return, O Lord, unto the ten thousands of the families of Israel’.”


Why does this passage appear in our parasha? Who are the enemies that should flee from the encounter with God? It is clear. We are setting out for the promised land. We shall surely be confronted by one of the many local armies. Moses calls on God to protect Israel, who set out and encamp by His very word, by scattering the enemies that we will inevitably meet. (It is interesting how they are described as God’s enemies. Apparently, any opponent of Israel is a protagonist towards God.)


There is no doubt. This passage fits perfectly, this prayer is eminently suited to this historic moment. The people are on their way to the fulfillment of the national dream.




But as we continue through the parasha, we read of a surprising unexpected turn of events. We hear about the desire of the people for meat, the “gluttonous craving” (11:4) that possessed the nation. We know not from where this came, but in the text it is portrayed as an immensely powerful urge, compulsive and unstoppable. This extreme impression emerges from the description of the behavior of the nation when they get their meat - a landing of quails all around the camp precinct. They collect the meat in a crazed, obsessive manner, a frantic hysteria gripping the Israelite camp:


“The people gathered quail all that day and night and all the next day - even he who gathered least had ten mounds of quail.” (11:32)


A non-stop thirty six hour single minded operation driven by an insatiable desire for meat. We know the way that this lusting was received by God, and by Moses


“The Lord was very angry, and in Moses’ eyes, it was evil.” (11.10)




What was the effect of this lusting on the part of the people? What did it do to the Great March? To the march towards Jewish destiny? It stopped the historic journey dead in its tracks and the camp came to a complete standstill. “Not one day shall they eat nor two, not five days not ten and not even twenty. A month of days (shall you eat meat) until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you” (11:19-20). With this epidemic (and the subsequent plague - v.33-34), the camp is held up for an entire month, the Great March is suspended, the excitement dissipates, the anticipation wanes.


The great vision, the sense of immediacy and fulfillment which permeated the atmosphere before this fiasco, is gone. And now the prospect of a smooth entry into The land of Israel lies in question. Certainly, we may assert, after this episode, that the passage describing God’s scattering of enemies, those majestic lines so full of promise, seem out of place, tattered and torn. The journey, the Great March, has been curtailed, postponed indefinitely. The section - of only two lines - which spoke of God marching with Israel, boldly and triumphantly into the promised land, is a distant vision. The passage is put in parenthesis because after the episode of the “gluttonous desire” - “the graves of the voluptuous” (v.34) - that vision is dislocated, suspended like a dream, but not reality. The passage is out of place, because the journey, and the vision, has been inverted, just like the letters “nun” which surround these lines.




It is this which leads Moses to such crisis and despondence. The vision which he saw so clearly, within reach, is now a distant dream once more. The nation has shown that a desire for flesh can obscure a vision of supreme spiritual and historic import. This is a tragic story, and Moses feels it to the core of his being. He wants to give up. If the nation can be so fickle, at the moment of their greatest potential, then is there any hope at all?


But there is something else about the nature of this lusting which is antithetical to Judaism on the most fundamental level. After all, we must understand what was so objectionable about the simple desire for meat; after we are not talking about murder, sexual license, a rejection of God. This is just a desire for meat!


Rav Soloveitchik compares this episode with another similar story about Manna. Here is a story about desire, primitive hedonistic desire. In this story we read of the pagan world-view of drinking the cup to the dregs, motivated by a desire for sensual indulgence, boundless desire, a craving for the variety which excites and stimulates the senses. It was on this basis that the nation gathered meat, more and more of it, until it was piled up. It was more than they could eat, but that did not matter, they were led by their impulses and their eyes, and the desire for boundless pleasure.


The food that they rejected was the Manna. This was also food provided by God, however we read about the gathering of the Manna how God commands;


“Gather as much of it as each of you requires to eat, an ‘omer’ measure per person .... The Israelites did so, some gathering much, some little, but when they measured it by the ‘omer,’ he who had gathered more had no excess and he who had gathered little had no deficiency: they had gathered as much as they needed to eat” (Ex. 16:16-18)


The Manna is the expression of the Jewish value system of limited-ness. The desire for meat is an expression of the pagan in man. With the Manna, everyone gathered only what they needed, not what they desired. And it was always enough. With the meat, nothing was enough, for they were propelled by an insatiable lusting.


Confronted by all this, Moses is overwhelmed by a feeling of loss and despair. Can this people who crave the pagan way of life really enter into the promised land? A people who can be so suddenly distracted, like a small child, from the noble vision the Jewish future, to a pagan lusting, can this people ever consummate the Godly plan?




Moses learns something else about himself in the course of this episode. Until this point Moses perceived himself as a teacher, a figurehead, a judge, a prophet. All of these functions were part of Moses’ self-perception. But now, Moses finds himself taking on a new role, a role that demands ultimate commitment.


Moses compares himself here to a nursing mother.


“Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that you should say to me, “carry them in your bosom as a nursing mother carries an infant” to the land that you promised...?” (11:13)


The nursing mother is inseparable to her baby. She is tied to her child in every way. When the baby is awake, she must be awake, when the baby is happy, she is happy and when the baby cries, she feels it through her entire being. It is a relationship of total commitment. Moses complains here as he realizes the extent to which his own personal fate is tied to that of the Children of Israel. He realizes that even when the vision collapses, when there is regression and failure, even then he carries this people, and this even at great personal cost. Let us not forget, that Moses too does not enter the land. Moses more than anyone was excited, ecstatic, about the prospect of God’s kingdom in the land of promise. But here, he breaks with the full weight of the realization that his life is tied to the life of his nation as a mother is tied to her infant.


So Parashat Behaalotekha describes a tragic reality. The failure of the dream to be realized, the failure of the Great March to the Promised Land. Had that march been realized, Jewish History would have looked entirely different. We might say that we still struggle, as a nation and as individuals, to put the spirit over the “meat,” and we are still engaged in a fight to reach the Promised Land.


Shabbat shalom.



[1] This shiur is based on a lecture of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l -from June 10th 1974 - as heard on an audio tape of the lecture. For further reading on this topic, see “Teaching with clarity and empathy” - Chapter 14 from “Reflections of the Rav” - Lessons in Jewish Thought adapted from the lectures of Rabbi Soloveitchik - by Rabbi Abraham Besdin.

[2] The narrative between Ch.7 and 9 describe certain other hold-ups in the departure from Sinai, just emphasizing the centrality of this theme. First there is the gifts of the Prices which begin on the day of the completion of the Mishkan (Num. 7:1) and continue for the next twelve days (7:11). This takes us to the 13th of Nissan - on the verge of Passover. Thus in Ch.9 we describe the second celebration of Passover. This leads to problems with those who were impure at the appropriate time (9:9-13) allowing them a second opportunity a month later. Thus we find ourselves on the eve of departure.