Where It All Went Wrong
Understanding The Great Sin Of The Israelites In The Wilderness
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In this week's parsha, we reach the tipping point, where the nation of Israel begins their downfall, leading to 40 years wandering in the desert before being allowed into the land of Israel. What happened? How did everything fall apart? Rabbi Fohrman explores this question with the backdrop of the garden of Eden, explaining that this week isn't the first time God has given us food from Heaven, and we have rejected it.
This week's parsha marks a kind of turning point in the Book of Numbers between the good times and the bad times.
What Was the Great Sin of the Israelites in the Wilderness?The bad times reach a kind of climax in Parshat Shelach, just a little bit later on in this book, when God decrees that an entire generation... they will die in the desert, they will not live to see the land. Only their children will come and inherit the land.
We'll be looking at the sin of the spies next week. And I want to suggest to you that to really understand the loss of this entire generation, you have to look at this week's parsha, Beha'alotecha. Because this is where it all begins to unravel. Everything goes really, really well, and then there's a point, a tipping point, where after that, it's all bad times.
So the actual tipping point seemed to be these verses that describe how the ark would travel before the people. Vayehi binsoah haAron, when the Ark would travel. The Ark was meant to be the force that would go before the camp that would help Israel conquer the land. They were preparing to go – they were only eleven days away, eleven days journey by foot to the land of Israel – when those eleven days became forty years. What happened at that point to begin this terrible slide towards disaster? The text says: Vayehi haAm k'mitonenen, ra b'oznei Hashem. The people were like complainers; it was evil in the eyes of God.
Now let's examine this carefully. These complaints that the people lodged with Moses against God: they started off as just amorphous mumblings… but then they coalesced into something: a rejection of the manna – bread delivered directly to man, made by God. The people say: nafsheni yeveisha, our souls, we feel all dried out. Ain kol – we have nothing – bilti el haMan einenu – except for this manna. Now let me ask you something: does that remind you of anything? Was there ever another time in biblical history when God provided food directly to human beings? When human beings rejected the food that God had made for them?
Biblical Connections to the Israelites' Sin in the WildernessYou see, back in the Garden, God had provided food for man. He had provided all of these trees, and allowed man to partake of the fruits of any of them – with the exception of one tree: the Master's own tree, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. What happened in the Garden is that we rejected that gift. God was holding out special food made by God just for us, and we didn't want it. We wanted control over the Garden, to pretend that we were master of the Garden. The only tree that mattered for us was the Master's own tree.
When we indicated to God that we wanted control over our food sources in that way, we didn't want gifts – we wanted to own the whole refrigerator, as it were – so God said, Look, if that's the way it is, if you really want ultimate control over your food, b'zeat apecha tochal lechem, by the sweat of your brow you shall make bread. Bread is the original processed food, the original man-made food, as opposed to God-made fruit.
God says: Look, you'll have to struggle, you'll have to harvest wheat, beat it down, extract the seeds, grind them into flour. But at the end of the day, at least it's real that you're controlling your own food source. And with that, we were exiled from the Garden – this special place where God offered us His precious trees. God sets up two cherubs, two keruvim, these angels, at the entrance of the Garden to make sure that we will never find our way back there.
But then, one day, that changed.
How God Provided for the Israelites in the WildernessThe people of Israel left Israel on a moment's notice and didn't have time to pack food for the way. In the words of the verse, b'tzeida lo asu lahem, they didn't take provisions. They just trusted that God who was leading them out into the desert – that He would provide for them somehow. And how did God respond? He provided us with bread – manna – from heaven. Bread, it's man-food but God loved us so much, He went out of His comfort zone to provide us with man-food.
In the Garden, you rejected me but here in the desert, you're coming back to Me. I'll give you food, I'll even give you bread. That's what the Torah calls it back in Exodus 16: "bread from Heaven." And the people looked at the bread that had come from Heaven, they didn't understand what it was. They said: man hu, what is that? And Moses said, hu haLechem asher natan Hashem lachem l'achla, it's the bread that God is giving you to eat. It's a paradox, an oxymoron – bread from Heaven. The rejection of God back in the Garden was redeemed by the acceptance of God as we followed Him into a desert – the opposite of a garden – without taking food of our own.
Indeed, the zenith of the good times in the desert is when the Ark travels before us – only eleven days away from the Land of Israel, ready to help usher Israel into the land. The Ark was adorned by two cherubs, two keruvim. The same angels that kept us away from God's special garden would now bring us to God's special land.
But alas, just after this moment, the dark spectre of the Tree of Knowledge returned to cast its shadow once more. When we rejected the manna, we rejected that great gift that was designed to heal the wounds of the garden. Indeed, if you look carefully at the verses in Numbers that surround the story of the Ark, you will find a hint to the darkness of the Tree of Knowledge.
Understanding the Depth of the Israelites' Sin in the WildernessRight before that zenith moment, you'll find the word tov, good, appearing over and over and over again – and then, right after that moment of the ark's travels, you'll find the word ra, evil, appearing over and over and over again. Tov and ra. It's as if there's this, this Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil casting a dark shadow over the whole story that follows. In that following story, the people reject what God had provided for them – and one more time, as it did in the garden, death. A whole generation would perish.
How did it come to be? Why did the people reject this great gift of heaven-made bread? Let's look at the very first mention of the word "ra" in that chain of ra's. Vayehi haAm k'mitonenein, ra b'oznei Hashem. And the people were as complainers. What does that even mean? They were almost complaining. Well, on a certain level, that's understandable – that they weren't actually complaining. They were on their way to the land. It was all taken care of for them. They had the manna. God was leading them with the Ark. But there was a faint murmur, as if they were complaining.
Mitonenein – it actually might mean something else. A little bit different than a complaint, the way most translations translate it. Mitonein is the hitpael form of the word onein, a word that in Hebrew also signifies mourning. Indeed, in Jewish law, the very first stage of mourning, before burial, is known as aninut – the stage of being an onein. It was as if they were mourning, as if they were grieving. K'mitonenein. Well, you mourn over a loss. What were they mourning about? What great loss had they suffered?
A couple verses later: v'hasafsuf asher b'kirbo hitavu ta'ava, people amongst Israel – they desired something. But it's not immediately clear what it is that they're desiring. Later on, a few lines later, they'll talk about wanting meat. But right now it doesn't say hitavu l'basar – they wanted meat. It actually says, if you read carefully, hitavu taava – they desired a desire. That's what they were mourning.
All our needs are taken care of, every want anticipated and fulfilled. I'm living from the hand of God. It doesn't feel normal. They desired to actually have a desire, to want something that they didn't have. So they came up with something. They cried and they said: mi ya'achileinu basar, let's have meat, we don't have meat. Or even better yet: some other kinds of food, too.
How Did the Israelites' Sin Against God?Listen to the next words of the verse: Zacharnu et hadaga asher nochal b'mitzrayim. We remember the fish that we used to eat in Egypt. Et hakishium, the cucumbers, v'et ha'avatichim, the watermelons, hachatzir, the leeks, habetzalim, the onions, hashumim, the garlic. Immanuel Shalev in our office pointed out a fascinating thing to me. Fish, cucumbers, watermelons, leeks, onions, garlic – it's all underground food or underwater food. What kind of food are they rejecting? Look at the next line: V'ata nafsheinu y'veisha, ain kol, our souls feel dry, we don't have anything except this manna – the heaven bread. We don't want heaven bread. We want underground stuff, as far as you can get away from the heavens.
Look at the next verse, it describes what the people would do with the manna: Shatu ha'am v'laktu – the people would go about, they would gather it, but then, instead of eating it directly, tachnu b'reichayim, they would grind it in mills, o dachu bam'docha, beat it with a mortar, bishlu, they would bake it, asu oto ugot, they would try to make it into cakes – they would try processing it.
Here it was, it was bread, it was already processed for them at the hands of God, but they would try to process it again in whatever ways they could, to try to control it even more. It's like we were back in the garden again. It was that attempt, once more, to ultimately control your food source. Yes, then we were thrown out of the garden, then we were cursed to make bread, and then God in His love gave us bread, but now we were trying to control that very bread that God gave us. At the end of the day, we want to be regular, we don't want to be fed at the hands of heaven.
And so, at the end of this process, what do we find? You know, if you count the tovs just before the story of the Ark, there are five of them. If you count the ras just afterward, there's four of them. It seems asymmetrical, five and four. But you know? After those four ras, there's one tov: it's the tov that's not really a tov but a ra: tov lanu b'Mitzrayim, it was good for us in Egypt.
Was it really so good? It's so easy to forget, isn't it. The pain and the screams and the suffering of Egypt, somehow that fades in the distance. We were normal people back then, we ate food like anybody else did. They wanted to be back in that state of need. They wanted to want.
Lessons From the Israelites' Sin in the WildernessAnd yes, there is something within all of us that just wants to be regular. A human being, almost by its very nature, is engaged in trying to fulfill its needs, and we don't feel right when we're not doing that, when we're just taken care of. But sometimes, there are moments when we just need to be taken care of.
At the end of life, that's true, when we're elderly and need to be helped by others. And at the beginning of life, in the womb, it's true as well. Something like that was happening here. In the desert, they are in a close, intimate and yes, dependent, relationship… In the desert you can't make food. You'll get to the land where you control things, but you're not there. God is taking care of you now, as if you're still in a womb.
Indeed, the notion of still being in the womb, the womb of God – that too recalls the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden, in Hebrew, eden, a colleague of mine once suggested, is related to the word adayin, still, not yet. It was the garden of not yet-ness, when existence hadn't yet quite come to be. It was a kind of womb. That's what a womb is – when you aren't yet really born. God took care of mankind, provided him with every possible tree.
And now? All this would happen once more – not for all of mankind, but for a particular nation. In the desert, after leaving Egypt, people were in a kind of womb. Their nationhood was in nascency. It was just beginning to develop and God was caring for them, preparing them to enter the land. That stage involves intensive nurturing as a mother would nurture a baby.
If you reject that nurture, you're just trying to get out too soon. If you get out too soon, you die. It was that way back in the garden when we left that womb too soon. Death itself came to the world. And here, in the desert, this new rejection of God-food becomes the beginning of a trail of tears whose climax is the sin of the spies, the death of an entire generation.
That was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – not in a garden, but in a desert.