“Contemporary Implications of Ancient Rebellions”

by Rabbi Ephaim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’ha’alot’cha, we read of two egregious rebellions that occurred on the heels of the momentous Revelation at Sinai.

In three brief opening verses of Numbers 11, we read of the episode of the “Mit’oh’n’neem,” a group of complainers. The Torah states in Numbers 11:1: “Va’y’hee hah’ahm k’mit’oh’n’neem rah b’ahz’nay Hashem, va’yish’mah Hashem va’yee’char ah’poh, va’tiv’ahr bahm aysh Hashem, va’toh’chahl bik’tzay ha’mah’chah’neh,” And the people took to seeking complaints, speaking evil in the ears of the L-rd. And when G-d heard, His wrath flared, and a fire of G-d burned among them, and it consumed at the edge of the camp.

The Torah relates that when the people cried out to Moses, he  prayed to G-d and the fire died down. Moses proceeded to name the place, “Tahv’ay’rah,” which means the place at which the fire of G-d had burned against the people.

Immediately following those verses, we read of another rebellious group, the “Ah’saf’soof,” the mixed multitude. In Numbers 11:4, the Torah relates, “V’hah’saf’soof ahsher b’kir’boh hit’ah’voo tah’ah’vah, vah’yah’shoo’voo va’yiv’koo gahm B’nay Yisrael, vah’yohm’roo: Mee yah’ah’chee’lay’noo bah’sahr,” And the rabble that was among them, the mixed multitude, cultivated a craving, and the Children of Israel also wept once more, and said, “Who will feed us meat?” The people then cry out, “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt, free of charge, the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now, our life is parched, we have nothing to anticipate, but the manna.”

The Ramban suggests that the people complained because they were afraid to leave Sinai, which was closer to populated areas, and go into a desolate and unknown wilderness.

The Sifre (a Midrashic commentary on the book of Numbers) indicates that the word, “Vah’y’hee,” relates to the peoples’ previous situation. Once they departed from that spiritually-elevating atmosphere of Sinai, says the Sifre, they reverted back to the corrupt nature of their existence in Egypt.

The Ramban, commenting on Numbers 10:33-35, notes that when the verse states that the people traveled from the mountain of G-d a distance of three days, the Midrash states that, “They fled from the mountain of G-d like a child running away from school.” Why were they running? Because, says the Ramban, they were afraid that G-d might give them more commandments to observe. With such an attitude, it would be impossible for them to succeed in the wilderness.

Rabbi Yaakov Philber, in his wonderful commentary on the weekly portion, Chemdat Yamim, attempts to explain how the Children of Israel, who had reached the loftiest heights of spirituality at the splitting of the Red Sea and the Revelation at Sinai, could possibly have turned on G-d, worshiped the Golden Calf, and complained continuously throughout their long sojourn in the wilderness.

The Talmud, in Shabbat 88b, cites Ulla’s interpretation of the verse in Song of Songs 1:12, “While the king sat at his table, my spices gave its fragrance.” On this verse, Ulla said, “Shameless is the bride who plays the harlot within her bridal canopy.” Rashi explains that this refers to the people of Israel who made the Golden Calf while they were still at Mount Sinai.

Many explanations are offered to account for the momentous fall of the People of Israel from the greatest spiritual heights, to the lowest depths. Some commentators suggest that the sin of the people was, in reality, not so great, but because of their exalted spiritual stature, G-d was punctilious in judging the People of Israel, and punished them severely.

Rabbi Philber suggests that this was a corrupt generation who had sinned before, and who now returned to their previous state of corruption. Rabbi Philber argues, that it is impossible for a religious experience, no matter how powerful, to penetrate a perverted heart and change habits that have been long established. A new personality cannot be created free from a person’s past sinfulness.

Rashi claims that the “Ah’saf’soof” were actually a mixed multitude of Egyptians who had attached themselves to the Jewish people. This interpretation is quite plausible; after all, because the mixed multitude were not Israelites and had never absorbed the original spirituality of the people, they became a thorn in the side of Israel.

Rabbi Shimon the son of Menasse surprisingly suggests that the “Ah’saf’soof” were actually the elders of Israel. He derives this from the verse (Numbers 11:16), “Ehs’fah lee shiv’eem eesh,” gather for me seventy elders. If they were elders, how could they have sinned so grievously? The verse (Numbers 11:4) states, ”V’hah’saf’soof ahsher b’kir’boh hit’ah’voo tah’ah’vah,” they lusted. While the souls of the leaders soared, their bodies’ physical desires never rose. This is quite similar to the Torah’s description of theophany at Mount Sinai in Exodus 23:11, where the leaders of Israel saw G-d and indifferently continued to eat and drink during that exalted spiritual moment.

Rabbi Philber cites the Sifre, which says that “Mit’oh’n’neem” means those people who were simply looking for an excuse to escape their spirituality. This is why the people demand, “Who will feed us meat to eat?” Clearly, there was no shortage of meat. The Torah itself testifies (Numbers 32) that when the tribes of Reuben and Gad approached Moses with the request to remain with their families and belongings on the east side of the Jordan, their excuse was that they needed to remain there because they had too many flocks, and that the west bank will not be able to support them all. Obviously, there was plenty of food.

It is impossible to read these verses without noting a strong parallel to contemporary times. While it is true that there are historic numbers of Jews studying Torah today, there are also significant numbers of those who come from strong Jewish educational backgrounds, who are running away, much like the ancient Israelites.

From the episodes of the complainers and the mixed multitude, we see that, often, a purely spiritual diet is insufficient. To be effective, a heightened intellectual regimen of spirituality must be accompanied by positive, joyous Jewish experiences and positive role models. The physical world must join the spiritual world with joy and happiness and must not be allowed to become a purely intellectual exercise.

The deeds of our fathers are signposts for our children’s future. It is important for contemporary leaders and educators to learn from these examples. The Torah is not a book intended for the ancients–it is a book that is very close and near to us. Let us embrace its message and learn from its timeless lessons.

May you be blessed.