“The Murmurers”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat B’ha’alot’cha, is a complex and fascinating parasha. The first three chapters of the parasha contain many themes including the lighting of the Menorah, the consecration of the Levites, the celebration of Passover in the wilderness, the role of the fiery cloud upon the Tabernacle, the trumpets of silver, the people’s departure from Sinai, the encounter with Jethro, the experiences of the people on the first journey, and Moses’ prayers when the Ark began to move and when the Ark came to rest.

The trouble starts in chapter 11 of Numbers. This chapter, and the following three chapters, deal with a series of rebellions that begin soon after the people’s departure from Sinai. These rebellions ultimately result in the people being prohibited from entering the Promised Land.

As chapter 11 of Numbers opens, we encounter the “Mit’oh’n’nim.” Numbers 11:1 reads: “Vah’y’hee ha’ahm k’mit’oh’n’nim rah b’ahz’nay Hashem; vah’yish’mah Hashem, vah’yee’char ah’poh; vah’tiv’ahr bahm aish Hashem, va’toh’chahl bik’tzay ha’mah’chah’neh.” And the people began to murmur, speaking evil in the ears of the L-rd. And when the L-rd heard, His anger was kindled, and the fire of the L-rd burned among them, and it consumed at the edge of the camp. As the fire continued to wreak destruction, the people cried out to Moses. Moses prayed to G-d, and the fire subsided. Moses called the place “Taverah,” to commemorate the fire of G-d that had burned against the people.

Our commentators have difficulty identifying who the Mit’oh’n’nim–-the murmurers, were, or if there were murmurers at all. Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) explains that when the people left the Sinai region, which was near inhabited land, and penetrated deeper into the great wilderness, they became restless and began to complain, because the wilderness appeared to them as a death trap.

Ibn Ezra (R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra, 1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) connects the word “Mit’oh’n’nim” with the Hebrew word “ah’ven,” meaning sin or wickedness. He, therefore, says that their sin was uttering evil words.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) maintains that the Torah’s use of the word “ha’ahm” to describe the people, indicates that the people were wicked. He further explains the word “mit’oh’n’nim” to mean that these were people who were looking for a pretext to rebel. The people intentionally wanted G-d to hear their complaints, so that He would become angry. Citing the Midrash Sifrei, Rashi states that the people cried out, “Woe is to us! How much have we struggled on this journey! It has been three days that we have not had respite from the suffering of the way.”

The commentaries on Rashi indicate that, at least on the surface, the Israelites had a perfectly justified complaint. After all, the people had been traveling for several days without rest. G-d was angry at the people, because a faithful nation would not have complained. The Israelites should have realized that the difficult three day journey was intended to hasten their arrival in the Promised Land, which, of course, would be to their benefit. But the people of little faith failed to realize that.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) offers a novel interpretation of the word “mit’oh’n’nim,” asserting that it comes from the root of the Hebrew word “oh’nayn“–-mourning. Says Rabbi Hirsch, “The people were as if mourning over themselves.”

Rabbi Hirsch explains that instead of perceiving the cloud of G-d that hovered over the nation and the holy Ark as miracles, the murmurers felt cut off from the rest of the world. They perceived themselves as being already dead, and mourned over themselves, unable to appreciate their closeness to G-d. Instead of feeling elated by G-d’s constant presence, they felt distanced and worthless.

That is why the verse states that they were evil in G-d’s “ears,” rather than in G-d’s “eyes.” They specifically knew that their complaining would anger G-d, and that was exactly their intention. The whole point of fire burning, “bik’tzay ha’mah’chah’neh,” at the far end of the camp rather than in the midst of the camp, was to serve as a wake-up call for the remaining people, allowing them to appreciate and value their lives.

As previously noted, this first group of murmurers, the naysaying “nabobs of negativism,” opened a Pandora’s box for future rebellions. Due to the brazenness of the “Mit’oh’n’nim,” rebellion against G-d and rejection of Him was now to become a pattern of the people.

The syndrome that Rabbi Hirsch describes, of people mourning their own lives, is hardly an ancient manifestation. It is very much part of today’s reality. Many are aware of the intense debate that took place on the campus of Brandeis University, regarding the appropriateness of inviting Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren to speak at the Brandeis commencement exercises this year.

Given the broad condemnation of Israel for improper conduct in Gaza, a significant and vocal group of Jewish students on campus demanded that the president of Brandeis rescind the invitation to Oren. (The graduation took place this past Sunday, 5/23/10, with the Ambassador as the speaker. Click here for the article from the Boston Globe,)

Among those commenting on the controversy was one of the bright, young stars and polemicists on the Israeli scene, Dr. Daniel Gordis of the Shalem Institute. In an article for the Jerusalem Post entitled, “If this is our future…,” he writes,

For many young American Jews, the only association they have with Israel is the conflict of the Palestinians. Israel is the country that oppresses Palestinians, and nothing more. No longer is Israel the country that managed to forge a future for the Jewish people when it was left in tatters after the Holocaust. Israel is not, in their minds, the country that gave refuge to hundreds of thousands of Jews expelled from North Africa when they had nowhere else to go, granting them all citizenship, in a policy dramatically different from the cynical decisions of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to turn their Palestinian refugees into pawns in what they (correctly) assumed would be a lengthy battle with Israel. Israel is not proof that one can create an impressively functioning democracy even when an enormous portion of its citizens hail from countries in which they had no experience with democratic institutions. Israel is not the country in which, despite all its imperfections, Beduin women train to become physicians, and Arab citizens are routinely awarded PhDs from the country’s top universities…For many young American Jews, it is only the country of roadblocks and genocide, of a relentless war waged against the Palestinians for no apparent reason.

How strikingly similar are these two episodes. Both the Mit’oh’n’nim and the Jewish university students are people who appear to be distanced from G-d, or who have little or no connection with G-d and limited Jewish education. For them, everything is bleak, whether it is the clouds of the Al-mighty that hover over the Tabernacle, or a nation with its back against the wall in pitched battle against hundreds of millions of Muslims who wish to destroy the Jewish state. There is little optimism, there is little hope. They wish to yield to the enemy’s perfidious demands in the hope that peace will finally be achieved.

It is this pessimistic outlook that leads to greater depression, a pessimism that blocks all avenues of hope for the people and renders them paralyzed, helpless, and forsaken.

The ancient Mit’oh’n’nim, who had triumphantly marched out of Egypt with their brothers and crossed through the split waters of the Red Sea, lost all hope. Similarly, Jews, who not long ago rejoiced over the swamps that had been cleared and the deserts that now bloom, who swelled with pride over the constant flow of revolutionary technological and medical developments that flow daily from the Promised Land, see only darkness today.

As the Psalmist says, a Jew must declare (Psalms 118:17): “Lo ah’moot kee ech’yeh,“–-I shall not die, but I shall live, and relate the praises of the L-rd. It takes faith and leadership.

The murmurers were people of little faith whose lack of confidence led only to greater tragedy. The rebelliousness ended only when Joshua and Caleb stood up and declared (Numbers 14:6-9), “We can prevail.”

Let us hope and pray that there shall be found among our young people, some would-be Joshuas and Calebs, who will inspire our young people to, once again, shout for joy in their pride for the accomplishments of the Jewish state.

May peace prevail in the Holy Land. Amen.

May you be blessed.