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  • Harav Yehuda Amital
Parashat Chukat
Dedicated in memory of Yitele bat Nathan Hacohen z”l
whose yahrtzeit is 11 Tammuz 
By Family Rueff
The Sin at Mei Meriva
Harav Yaakov Medan

When was the sin of Mei Meriva committed?

And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Tzin in the first month; and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miryam died there, and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon. And the people strove with Moshe, and spoke, saying: “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! And why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, to die there, we and our cattle? And why have you made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in to this evil place? It is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink.” And Moshe and Aharon went from the presence of the assembly to the door of the tent of meeting, and fell upon their faces; and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. (Bamidbar 20:1-6)
Because you rebelled against My commandment in the wilderness of Tzin, in the strife of the congregation, to sanctify Me at the waters before their eyes. These are the waters of Merivat-Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin. (Bamidbar 26:14)

In the Fortieth Year

The Torah takes the trouble to tell us that Miryam's death and the sin at Mei Meriva took place in the first month (Nisan), but it does not tell us the year in which these events occurred. The commentators all agree that the sin was committed in the fortieth year, on the eve of Israel's entry into the land of Canaan:
"The whole congregation" – The congregation in its integrity, for those who were to die in the wilderness had already died, and these had been expressly mentioned for life. (Rashi)
"And Miryam died there" – In the first month at the end of the forty years. (Rashbam)
"In the first month" – Of the fortieth year. (Ibn Ezra)
But this Kadesh was in the wilderness of Tzin, and they arrived there in the fortieth year, and there Miryam died. (Ramban)
"In the first month" – And it was the fortieth year. (Rabbeinu Bachayei)
Without a doubt all this took place after all the people of the wilderness had died and [only] their children remained who were destined to enter the land. (R. Yitzchak Abravanel)
This is similarly the view expressed in Seder Olam Rabba (9) and in other midrashim
On the assumption that the sin took place in the fortieth year, we well understand the juxtaposition of this story to the sending of messengers to the king of Edom on the eve of Israel's entry into the land, as well as the camping at Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin, at the foot of the ascent of Akrabim, on the border of the land of Canaan:
And the border of the Amorites was from the ascent of Akrabim, from Sela and upward. (Shoftim 1:36)
This follows also from the list of Israel's journeys in the wilderness, where Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin is mentioned near the death of Aharon on Hor Ha-Har in the fortieth year:
And they journeyed from Etzyon-Gever and pitched in the wilderness of Tzin, the same is Kadesh. And they journeyed from Kadesh, and pitched in Hor Ha-Har, in the edge of the land of Edom. And Aharon the priest went up to Hor Ha-Har at the command of the Lord, and died there, in the fortieth year. (Bamidbar 33:36-38)
If we accept this interpretive assumption that the Torah has shifted now to the fortieth year, we must explain why the Torah skipped over thirty-eight years. We assume that the episode of Korach took place close to the time of the sin of the spies, during the second year, as I explained elsewhere. The section of the red heifer, which separates between the incident involving Korach and the death of Miryam and the sin of Mei Meriva, had been given earlier, at the time of the dedication of the Mishkan at the beginning of the second year, as I explained elsewhere. Here, immediately afterwards, we move directly to the fortieth year. What is the meaning of this empty vacuum of time?
Rashi attributes this to the sin of the spies, in the wake of which God did not speak with Moshe until the fortieth year, after all of the people who sinned together with the spies had already died. For this reason, no additional chapters of the Torah were given over the course of the next thirty-eight years:
But from the time the spies were sent forth until now, the word va-yedaber ("He spoke") is not mentioned in this section, but rather va-yomer ("He said"), to teach you that during these entire thirty-eight years during which Israel was lying under God's censure, the Divine utterance was not vouchsafed to him in affectionate language, face to face and tranquillity of mind – to teach you that the Shekhina rests on the prophets only for Israel's sake. (Rashi, Devarim 2:16)
An objection may be raised against Rashi that in the framework of the incident involving Korach, which (according to most commentators) took place after the sin of the spies, God spoke to Moshe and to the people several times, and even gave them commandments for future generations.
It is possible that it was the incident involving Korach that caused the departure of the Divine utterance for thirty-eight years, primarily because it involved a challenge to the truth of the prophecy of Moshe upon which all of God's Torah depends. God may have continued to speak to Moshe during those thirty-eight years in the Tent of Meeting outside the camp, as was the case following the sin involving the golden calf (see Shemot 33:7-11), but nothing about this is written in the Torah, because the people did not merit to hear the words of God due to the challenge that they had posed to Moshe's prophecy. The return of Aharon's rod to the Tent of the Testimony expressed the departure of God's words from between the two keruvim, as I explained elsewhere.

In the Third Year Following the Exodus

The interpretive possibility that we have presented, that the sin at Mei Meriva was committed in the fortieth year, has many advantages, most importantly the interpretive tradition inherent in it. But it leaves us with two difficulties, one interpretive and the other substantive:
And the people strove with Moshe, and spoke, saying: “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord.” (Bamidbar 20:3)
To what death are these complainers referring? Are they referring to the deaths of their fathers over the course of their thirty-eight year journey through the wilderness? Why, then, did they say, "when our brothers perished," and not "when our fathers perished"? Furthermore, is it appropriate to refer to the slow deaths of the generation of the wilderness as "perishing before the Lord"?
They may be referring to what was stated in the wake of the deaths of the company of Korach:
And the children of Israel spoke to Moshe, saying: “Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. Every one that comes near, that comes near to the Mishkan of the Lord, is to die; shall we wholly perish?” (Bamidbar 17:27-28)
That the complainers at Mei Meriva should refer to the deaths of the company of Korach thirty-eight years earlier, when in the meantime they experienced the deaths of the six hundred thousand members of the generation of the wilderness, is puzzling.
Let us then assume for a moment that the words of the complainers at Mei Meriva were sounded shortly after the deaths of the company of Korach, and that the "first month" that is mentioned in connection with the journey to Mei Meriva is the first month of the third year to the exodus from Egypt. The Torah does not mention that it is the third year, because that immediately followed the second year, during which all of the previous events mentioned in the book of Bamidbar took place. The incident at Mei Meriva, according to this possibility, was part of the series of sins of Tav'era, Kivrot ha-Ta'ava, the spies, the ma'apilim, and the company of Korach.
Another objection may be raised against the conventional interpretation that the sin at Mei Meriva took place in the fortieth year and that over the course of the previous thirty-eight years God did not speak to Moshe and the people: For thirty-eight years, the people of Israel wandered from place to place in the sweltering wilderness. Did they not complain during those years even once? Were they not attacked by occasional enemies, bandits, wild beasts, heat, hunger, and thirst? And if such difficulties arose but the Torah ignored them, did Moshe succeed with his own leadership to silence the complaints of the desperate and slowly dying people, without God answering him and guiding him with His salvation?
Along with these two questions, let us add another exegetical remark: Rashi explains that "the whole congregation" refers to the second generation, after the entire generation of the wilderness had died. The camp at Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin marked the border between the two generations. The Torah, however, emphasizes that a different place served as this boundary line: the brook Zered, which was far from the wilderness of Tzin, on the border of Moav after Israel circumvented the land of Edom from the west, the south, and the east. When the people of Israel crossed the brook Zered, they entered the land of Sichon the king of the Amorites, which they would later conquer, and the generation of the wilderness should have died out before they crossed this brook:
“Now rise up, and get you over the brook Zered.” And we went over the brook Zered. And the days in which we came from Kadesh-Barnea until we were come over the brook Zered were thirty and eight years; until all the generation, even the men of war, were consumed from the midst of the camp, as the Lord swore to them. Moreover the hand of the Lord was against them, to discomfit them from the midst of the camp, until they were consumed. So it came to pass, when all the men of war were consumed and dead from among the people, that the Lord spoke to me saying: “You are this day to pass over the border of Moav, even Ar.” (Devarim 2:13-18) 
According to my proposal, the people of Israel went from Ritma (where the sin involving the spies took place; see Rashi) to Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin, a trip of eighteen journeys (see Bamidbar 33), in the second year, and they encamped in Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin at the foot of the mountain of the Amorites and the Land of Israel for thirty-seven years in a permanent and orderly camp near Einot Tzin (the location of which is known to us even today). God did not speak to Moshe and Aharon after He rebuked them in Mei Meriva for not having sanctified Him, but life in the camp went on in an orderly manner. There was water and manna until the fortieth year, which started with Moshe's request of the king of Edom to pass through his land. There Miryam died at the beginning of their encampment, and there, in Hor Ha-Har, Aharon died after thirty-seven years in the fortieth year.
According to this proposal, there is another verse whose meaning changes:
So you abode in Kadesh many days, according to the days that you abode there. Then we turned, and took our journey into the wilderness by the way to the Sea of Suf, as the Lord spoke to me; and we compassed Mount Seir many days. (Devarim 1:46-2:1)  
The Ibn Ezra and the Chizkuni understand that the reference is to Kadesh-Barnea in the Sinai wilderness west of the Negev, about the place from which the spies set off in the second year. The people of Israel remained there for a long time. According to the Seder Olam (8) and Rashi (Devarim, ad loc.), they remained in Kadesh-Barnea for nineteen years, and another nineteen years they moved about and encompassed Mount Seir.[1] The reference seems to be to the "High Mountain Region," a range of mountains in southern Sinai.
According to our proposal, the Kadesh mentioned is Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin in the eastern Negev, and therefore it is not called Kadesh-Barnea (or Rekem Geia, as it is called in the translations), but merely Kadesh (or Rekem). The aforementioned journey by the way to the Sea of Suf is the long route that they were forced to take to go around the land of Edom in the fortieth year, after the king of Edom refused their request to enter his land.
As stated above, there are great advantages also to the accepted understanding that the sin of Mei Meriva was committed in the fortieth year, and I leave it to the reader to decide between the two interpretations.
(Translated by David Strauss)
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[1] It would appear from Rashi that he does not distinguish between Kadesh Barnea and Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin.