Is It The Beginning Of The End?
Is It The Beginning Of The End?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In Parshat Beha’alotecha we complete the Mishkan story that started in the middle of Exodus and is completed all the way into this portion of Bamidbar. Finally, the children of Israel are ready to embark on their journey to the Holy Land with the Mishkan – God’s dwelling place – by their side. But their journey quickly takes a turn for the worse as the saga of the desert experience begins to fester with complaints, regrets, and slander. Is this the beginning of the end? What will become of the Israelite’s journey? Join Ami and Rivky as they study the shifting dynamics of the desert story — and never read Beha’alotecha the same way again.
Rivky: Hello, and welcome to Parsha Lab. I'm Rivky, the producer of Parsha Lab.
Ami: And I'm Ami, one of the writers at Aleph Beta.
Rivky: Ami, thanks for joining me today.
Ami: It's great to be here, Rivky.
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Rivky: All right. So, Ami, let's jump into the content, Beha'alotecha.
Ami: Okay. Before we get into Beha'alotecha itself, Rivky, I wanted to just ask you something. What comes to mind when you think of the Book of Numbers? What are some of the stories, the themes, the topics covered?
Understanding the Meaning of Beha'alotechaRivky: The way I generally think of Numbers is I think of it as the bulk of the 40 years in the desert. What happens in Numbers is the people actually start their journey, which is supposed to take 40 days. Because of the sins of the people, it ends up taking 40 years and this is the time where they prepare for entering the Land of Israel. That's what I think the bulk of the book is really about.
Ami: So it's really interesting to me in the way you described it is that it's the stories that take place in the shadow of sin, of mistakes.
Rivky: Ooh, that's an intense way to put it, but yeah, I think that's true. So much of what happens is the people kind of messing up. It's complaining or the people getting annoyed at Moses or at God or doing the wrong thing over and over and we just feel bad already. Let's go, let's get moving.
Ami: Right. Even if you look at some of the portions in Numbers, you know, Korach, okay, we know that was a bad story. Shlach, okay, the spies, that was a terrible story. Pinchas, okay, spearing people, more plagues. Balak, curses. It's got all these terrible things that are happening, but that's all second half of Numbers. What's our portion called?
Ami: Right. What's Beha'alotecha mean? Why is it called Beha'alotecha?
Rivky: We can look at it inside, but it's called Beha'alotecha because, if I'm not mistaken, the first thing that happens in this week's portion is that God tells Moses, Aaron, his brother, who's going to be the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, he's going to go and light the neirot, light the lamps of the menorah and he's going to sort of go up to it. So Beha'alotecha, when you go up to light the lamps and he gives some laws about that menorah.
Ami: Since you mentioned it, I'll read the first two verses. We're in Chapter 8 of Bamidmar, the Book of Numbers. "Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe leimor," God spoke to Moses saying. "Daber el Aharon v'amarta eilav beha'alotecha et haneirot el mul pnei ha'menorah ya'iru shivat ha'neirot," tell Aaron when you lift up the flame, so to speak, lift up the candles, they should all face the menorah, all seven candles.
Rivky: Oh, so I said it wrong. I said Beha'alotecha was about Aaron lifting himself up, but you're right, it's really about when you lift the candles in some sense.
Ami: Right, about raising the flames, so to speak. Now, does that have anything to do with the kinds of stories of Numbers we're used to; spies, Korach, rebellion, complaints? It seems to have to do with, well, the Tabernacle.
Rivky: Right. Yeah, we think of Numbers as really about a lot of these stories in the midbar, in the desert, in the wilderness, but really, this goes back to laws of the Tabernacle. It goes back to Leviticus. It goes back to the second half of Exodus. It feels unrelated to the way we normally really think of Numbers.
Ami: Right. The thing is that if we kind of backtrack in Numbers, what comes before Beha'alotecha is Naso, where we talk about the inauguration of the altar. Then, in Numbers, we talk about the encampment around the Tabernacle. Actually, the first few parashiyos, the first few chapters of the Book of Numbers are all really about building the camp centered around the Tabernacle and getting ready for the great departure of the Children of Israel, through the desert, on their way to the Land of Israel.
I actually think that Beha'alotecha is, in a sense, the meeting point, between the story of the Tabernacle traveling through the desert towards the Holy Land and the story of all the mistakes and terrible, tragic circumstances that the Children of Israel find themselves in in the desert.
Rivky: Pretty cool. It sounds like what you're saying is this portion is a real transition, bringing us from the laws and from the things that are really associated with the Tabernacle and the ritual associated with it to the travels that the people of Israel are about to embark on to bring them to Israel. So I'm excited to see how that works out.
Ami: Exactly. We get the menorah. We get stories about inaugurating the Levites for their work in the Tabernacle. Then we start to hear about how the Tabernacle is going to travel with the Children of Israel as they set off on their journey. We hear in Chapter 10 about the somewhat epic movement of the whole camp. It's almost like synchronized swimming of, you know, 2 million people.
Moses blasts the trumpets and then this tribe and this flag, they all get up and they start moving. Then this tribe with their flags, they start moving. It's as if everything that we've been building, literally and textually building, since the middle of Exodus, in the Book of Exodus, is now finally taking off. You know, we actually have still been at Mount Sinai until this point. It's only now that the journey towards the Land of Israel with the Tabernacle at its center is beginning.
Rivky: Wow, it's pretty epic the way you described that, Ami. Like, I'm imagining this visual and it seems pretty amazing. They've been sitting here, they've been learning the laws, they've been learning from Moses, they've been readying themselves, ready themselves and it's like, let's go already. Almost imagine this formation of hundreds of thousands of old people and children and animals and everything. It's pretty exciting to see it finally happen.
Ami: Right. Then we hit this brick wall.
The Challenges Faced by the Israelites in the WildernessAmi: Then, all of a sudden, people start complaining. People start complaining more. There are plagues. There are accusations. We should just have stayed in Egypt. Everything seems to be a downward spiral from there. I want to focus in right at that breaking point, Rivky. So let's turn, if you will, to Chapter 10, Verse 33. Do you want to read the next couple of verses and just summarize what they're saying?
Rivky: Sure. For context, is this where they first are about to move?
Ami: So we have, we've just heard about actually the epic movement of the whole nation, all the tribes and things like that and then this sort of small, little story where Moses turns to his father-in-law and says, "Hey, why don't you come along with us? We're going to that great land that God has promised us." Basically, Rivky, we're on our way. Everyone should come. It's time to go.
Rivky: Okay. "Vayisu mei'har Hashem," and they set forward from the mountain of God, "derech sheloshet yamim," which I guess was a three-day journey away from the mountain of God, "va'aron brit Hashem," and the ark of the covenant with God, "nosei'a lifneihem derech sheloshet yamim," went a three-day journey ahead of them, "latur lahem menuchah," to seek out some sort of resting place for the people of Israel.
Ami: I think, simply stated, the menuchah, the resting sounds like it probably has to do with where the next campsite is going to be.
Rivky: Right, a scouting trip, going out ahead of the mass. "Va'anan Hashem aleihem yomam," and the cloud of God was over them by day, "b'nasam min ha'machaneh," when they were traveling from the camp.
Ami: They're basically setting off on their journey. They have the ark of God clearing the path for them ahead, scouting out the journey, and they have these clouds basically hovering over them to protect them.
Rivky: Exactly. "Vayehi binso'a ha'aron vayomer Moshe," and it came to pass when the ark was traveling that Moses said, "kumah Hashem," rise up, God, "v'yafutzu oyvecha," and let your enemies be scattered, "v'yanusu m'sanecha mi'panecha," and let those who hate you run away and flee before you. "U'venuchoh yomar," and when the ark rested, then he would say, "shuvah Hashem," return, O God, "rivevot alfei Yisrael," unto the tens of thousands of the people of Israel, come back to us, God.
So it's almost like when the ark was going forward, Moses would say, "Okay, God, go ahead of us and get rid all of your enemies, let them all get away from us, clear our path." Then when the ark rested, it's like Moses would say, "Okay, God, come back, come back to us now."
Ami: Right. It's very much reflecting on what we saw in those verses right before. God is clearing the path ahead of them and then, "Okay, God, rest here with us. Stick around and be with your people now." Then, the very next verse, beginning of Chapter 11, is the beginning of this downward spiral. You just read...
Rivky: It's so immediate. It's like there's no transition even. "Vayehi ha'am k'mitonenim."
Ami: People are starting to complain.
Rivky: It's like you don't even pause, you don't even take a breath and the people are already complaining.
Ami: Not only that, it's "ra b'oznei Hashem," there's evil stuff that God is hearing from these people. A fire erupts in now in the camp and starts to eat away at the corner of the camp. Things just start to get bad here. And, Rivky, you were talking about how jarring that transition – it's the lack of transition even. The cloud, the trumpets, the movement, everything is on its way, triumphantly marching through the desert and then bam, complaints, fires, more complaints, more plagues.
I just also want to point out that we have this sort of generic complaint that begins in Verse 1 here and then a few verses later, the people start to complain more specifically. "V'hasafsuf, this gathered multitude of folks, "asher b'kirbo hitavu ta'avah" – I'm in Verse 4 now – they desired a desire, "va'yashuvu va'yivku gam Bnei Yisrael va'yomru mi ya'achileinu basar."
The Children of Israel, along with this gathered peoples from all different nations, start to desire meat and they started to say who was going to give us some real meat to eat here; we're sick of the manna. This leads to a whole other story of plague, the quails, if you remember. I just want to focus on what you said before, Rivky. It's like there's no, we don't miss a beat here. Everything seems to be going in the right direction and then bam, complaints, plagues, complaints and more plagues.
Rivky: It's so sad.
Ami: It's really sad. What's kind of fascinating about this is it seems that the Talmud actually picks up on this bizarre sequence of events here and says you know what; there actually is a break in the story. There are two different ways the Talmud describes that break.
The Rabbis' Commentary on Beha'alotecha: 7 Torah Books?Ami: It describes it back in those two verses you read. "Vayehi binso'a ha'aron," in a Torah Scroll – we're on radio, so you can't see it. Is radio a thing anymore? We're on a podcast, so you can't see it, but if you look in any Chumash, any Bible, or you look in a Torah Scroll itself, it has these backwards Nuns bookending those two verses, Verses 35 and 36.
Rivky: Separating out into its own section.
Ami: Right. So there are two different ways the Rabbis explain this. One way is to say, you know, these verses really don't belong here at all. These verses of the ark traveling forward, they belong earlier in the book when we hear about how the camp is and how it's supposed to move and all those things. These verses belong in that story of how things should be when we hear about the camp's movements.
Another take on it, the Rabbis say these two verses, they're not even part of the same book we're reading here. This is pretty bizarre, Rivky. The Rabbis say that these two verses are a book of the Torah unto itself. How many books of Torah are there? How many books of Moses, Rivky?
Ami: The Five Books of Moses. The Rabbis say one of the opinions in the Talmud was that no, the Book of Numbers is broken into three books. From the beginning of Numbers until this backward Nun, from the end of these verses until the end of Numbers and these two verses themselves form their own book of Torah.
Rivky: So there's an interesting sentiment there, right? Presumably, what the Rabbis mean there is not meant to be taken literally. It's not meant to say, "Oh, how many Books in the Torah are there? There are six. Here are the six books." I would guess what the Rabbis are trying to say is there's something so special, so important and so unique about these verses that we set them off completely and we say focus on these, k'ilu, almost as if they are their own book. I would need to think about it more to get at what they're trying to say about these verses.
Ami: Right. So I actually, I want us to let that question kind of dangle for the time being and maybe we'll come back to it. I want to focus a little bit on the specific language used in the verses that become before this bizarre additional book of the Torah and some of the language that's used in the book after.
Let's start with the aftermath. Let's start specifically with the verses that I began reading, the hasafsuf in Verse 4. We talked about this mixed multitude of people who start desiring quails and they start saying we remember all the great food we ate in Egypt and here we are out in the desert, sick of the manna that we have to eat and we have a little description of the manna.
I'm going to read out for you a little bit, starting in Verse 10. "Vayishma Moshe et ha'am bocheh l'mishpechotav ish l'petach ahalo," Moses hears them crying in their tents, "vayichar af Hashem me'od," God gets very angry – and look at these words – "u've'einei Moshe ra," in Moses' eyes, it was wicked.
The Story of Moses' Experience in the WildernessRivky: It's interesting. I think we generally think of Moses' role very often in Torah to calm down God when God is angry. It's like, God, after the golden calf, God wants to destroy His people and He turns to Moses and says I'm done with them. Moses has to sort of, you know, take it down a notch and say, "Okay, but they're your people, you got to forgive them, you got to work with them. It's not their fault. Don't forget the covenant," all of these things. Here, it's like God is angry and then the Torah sort of turns the camera to Moses and says, "Okay, so now what's Moses going to do?" Moses is like, "Forget it, I'm done. These people? No way, I can't handle this anymore."
Ami: Basically, he goes into this whole speech. "God, did I give birth to these people? The terrible thing you're doing to me. You must hate me for giving this whole nation to take care of. What am I their mother? Am I their wet nurse? Where am I going to get meat to feed all these people? I can't carry it by myself."
Then Moses says – I'm reading Verse 15 – "V'im kachah at oseh li," if this is what you're going to do to me, "hargeini na harog," kill me now, "im matzati chein b'einecha," if you like me, "v'al ereh b'ra'ati," and don't let me see the terrible things that are going to befall me.
Rivky, this is bizarre. Not only the golden calf that Moses went to battle for these people but every other story that we read of until now when the people -- you know, they started complaining about they didn't have water, Moses prays for them. Even the story right before the mitonenim, this blanket complaint that God didn't like, they scream to Moses, Moses prays for them and the plagues stop. But here, Moses turns around and for the first time, he says not only are these people awful but Moses says kill me now.
Do you remember what Moses said at the golden calf, Rivky, that this kind of reminds me of? What does that remind you of; kill me now, God, if this is what you're going to do?
Rivky: If I recall correctly, what Moses says is almost the opposite of this. What Moses says is if you're going to destroy them, don't bother with me; destroy me, too.
Ami: Moses says, "Erase me from the book you wrote, God." Here, Moses seems to be saying somewhat the same and somewhat the opposite. He's saying, "God, take me out of the picture, kill me now if you're going to make me still have to care of these people because I can't take them any longer." He's made a whole about-face, 180 degrees.
Rivky: At the golden calf, it's almost like he was sacrificing himself on the altar of Israel and he was saying, "Okay, if you're going to destroy them, I'm going down with the ship," to mix metaphors a little bit. You know, I'm with them. Now, he's like, "If you're going to make me be with them, I'm done. Please just have mercy and take me out of this world."
Ami: The next verses here, there is sort of a collision between two things going on. On the one hand, the people want meat and at the same time, Moses is saying I can't handle them anymore. God seems to be responding to both these things at the same time.
Rivky: Okay. So, Ami, I want to hear what God says to Moses, but before we get there, I want to remind all you listeners, if you like what you're hearing, don't miss another episode. Subscribe at Stitcher, SoundCloud, iTunes. Listen to the podcast every single time a new episode comes out. Of course, if you want to hear way more, go to alephbeta.org. Check it out there. Get started watching for free or for a small monthly fee, you get unlimited content. But Parsha Lab listeners get a special coupon, 50 percent off your first month. Just put in the coupon code PARSHALAB when you join. Okay, Ami. Now, please tell us what does God say to Moses? I'm on the edge of my seat.
Ami: So Moses basically just had said kill me because I can't handle these people. So God says you know what, gather 70 elders together and I'm going to pour out from some of that divine spirit that you carry some of that prophetic ability and I'm going to give it to them so you're not going to have to be the only prophet in town. There will be other people who can take care of the Children of Israel with you. Woven into this funny story of giving over the prophecy to other people is, "And don't worry, I'm going to feed them food." I'm going to give them meat, a whole month's worth of meat. It's going to be coming out of their noses.
Biblical Connections to the Israelites Eating Quail in the DesertAmi: Then we get this story where basically Moses then comes out, he gathers the 70 elders, they all stand around the ohel, the meeting tent, God's cloud comes down and that spirit pours over the 70 elders. It pours out into these two folks, Eldad and Medad. They're sitting the camp and they also get kind of infected with this prophecy.
Then "Vayei'aseif Moshe el ha'machaneh," Moses gets gathered back to the camp, "hu v'ziknei Yisrael," he comes back with all the elders, the now prophets. "V'ru'ach nasa mei'eit Hashem," and a wind blows out – travels out from God – "va'yagaz salvim min ha'yam," it carries quail with it from the seas, va'yitosh el ha'machaneh," and they get spread out throughout the camp.
We get this bizarre kind of melding between prophecy and meat. What's even crazier, Rivky, is that the words that are used to speak about this spreading out of prophecy are the same words used to talk about the quails and the meat being given to the people of Israel. I'm going to point out two words used over and over again here. Remember what the folks were called, those people who started complaining about meat, Rivky?
Ami: What's the root of that word, hasafsuf?
Rivky: I would say asaf, which really feels like it's to gather.
Ami: To gather. Look in Chapter 11:16 when God begins to respond to Moses, what does he say?
Rivky: God says to Moses, "esfah li shiv'im ish mi'ziknei Yisrael," gather for me 70 people from the elders of Israel.
Ami: Exactly. I'm going to just glance through here. If we go through these verses, the word le'esof, asaf comes up over and over and over again. It says – I'm jumping to Verse 24 – Moses goes out, he speaks to the people, "vaye'esof shiv'im ish." Fine, not so shocking. He gathers 70 people like God said to, but then let's keep going on. The quails have come into the camp and what do we hear? Verse 32, read it, Rivky.
Rivky: "Va'yakam ha'am kol ha'yom ha'hu v'chol ha'laylah v'chol yom ha'macharat," and the people rose up that day and all night and all the next, "vaya'asfu et ha'slav," and they gathered the quail. The same word asaf, but now, it's no longer talking about the elders and the prophecy and who's going to be able to help Moses. Now, the gathering is referring to the quail and it keeps going, "asaf asarah chamarim," they gathered 10 chamarim, 10 piles or something like that. This word asaf, that's a really interesting find, Ami.
Ami: And so, Rivky, the bizarre thing is that it doesn't end there because, at the end of the portion, we have another little vignette that seems to be an unrelated story; Miriam and Aaron speaking badly about Moses and this woman that he married. Let's go all the way towards the back. Here, by the way, again, God's response has to do with Moses' prophecy, other people's prophecy. We're still in the weird, like, prophetic conversation. Now look at what happens at the end of this story. I'm looking at Verse 14.
Deeper Intertextual ConnectionsRivky: So what's happening at this point, if I remember correctly, is that Miriam has tzarat, white as snow, and Moses cries out to God and basically asks Him to heal her. "El na refa na lah," please heal her. What does God say? "Vayomer Hashem el Moshe," God responds back to Moses, "v'aviha yarok yarak b'faneha," if her father had spit in her face, "ha'lo tikaleim shivat yamim," wouldn't she hide her face, wouldn't she be ashamed for seven days, "tisager shivat yamim," so she should be shut up, she should be set aside without the camp for seven days, "mi'chutz la'machaneh," away from the camp, "v'achar tei'aseif," and after that she should be gathered back into the camp. Tei'asef, asaf, one more time. Ami, this is cool stuff.
Ami: And the next verse, let's hear what happens. "Va'tisageir Miriam."
Rivky: "Va'tisageir Miriam mi'chutz la'machaneh," and Miriam is shut off outside the camp, "shivat yamim," for seven days, "veha'am lo nasa," but the nation didn't travel – until when – "ad hei'aseif Miriam," until Miriam was regathered into the camp. Wow.
Ami: We have this recurring theme of asaf. It's the hasafsuf, the people who start desiring meat, it's the gathering of elders that Moses now spreads his prophecy to, it's the people gathering their quails to eat and it's Miriam being gathered back into the camp at the end of this portion.
Rivky: Ami, didn't you say that there was another word also that's going to travel along with us?
Ami: So there is another word here that seems to pop up and connect at least some of these stories, and that's the word ru'ach. The word ru'ach means spirit. We can understand how ru'ach would have to do with prophecy. For example, when God says to Moses gather 70 elders to me, God says I'm going to come to speak to you, "v'atzalti min ha'ru'ach asher aleicha v'samti aleihem," I will – atzalti is funny word, almost to say, I'm going to bestow from that spirit, that divine spirit upon you, the prophetic spirit and give it to them.
What we hear just a few verses later, when God actually sends the quails, after that ru'ach, after that spirit of prophecy is spread to the elders, is spread to Eldad and Medad, it then says, "v'ru'ach nasa mei'eit Hashem." God blows out a spirit, this time not a spirit of prophecy but a spirit of what? It's a spirit of quails.
Rivky: Like, people are just sitting in their houses, you know, looking around, doing the crossword and suddenly, you're like, oh, my God, it's so windy.
Ami: Right, just imagine what it would've sounded like.
Rivky: You know, all these quails just rush in.
Ami: So I want to contrast that – really, asaf is the primary word here and ru'ach seems to also weave these stories together. I want to contrast it with what I think is the operative term in the first half of the portion. Remember, we said the portion is basically broken into two halves, split in the middle by that...
Rivky: By those Nuns.
Ami: By those Nuns, exactly. So, again, we're not going to have time to read through it, but if you just take some time to look through the beginning of Beha'alotecha, we have the term nasa, vayisa, traveling, moving forward. "Vayehi binso'a ha'aron," let the ark go forward. Really, before that, that epic description is of the camp moving onward, moving forward. Rivky, where were they all moving to in the beginning of this portion?
Rivky: They finally get to pick up and move to the land. They're going to move to the Land of Israel.
Ami: They're picking up – exactly, they're moving towards the Land of Israel. By the end of the portion, what are they doing? Are they moving to the Land of Israel?
Rivky: It's, like, devolved into mayhem.
Ami: It's devolved into mayhem. Now, they're still moving. The word nasa comes up a bit more, but nasa at the end of the portion is only happening in response to isuf, to gathering. The people will only travel when Miriam is gathered back in. They're still traveling.
We like to not read with the end in mind here, but you and I know that very soon we're going to hear about the spies and then the destination of this journey is going to look very different. But what begins to happen here is that instead of moving forward, the people start to just be collected inward.
I'm going to ask you something. It's a very chilling connection here, but, Rivky, in the end of the story here, we hear about Miriam having to be gathered back to the camp. There are other places in the Torah that talk about being gathered back into your people. What does that mean when it's brought up in the Torah?
Rivky: The first thing to me that comes to mind is really death. This language is all over Genesis, the deaths of the forefathers.
Ami: It's all over, when the forefathers die, exactly. So being gathered into your people, it almost seems like in some chilling way the portion begins with a journey, a promise, an excitement of finally getting to the place where we're all waiting to go to. Then something terrible happens in the middle, and from this point onward, the rest of not only this portion but the whole Book of Numbers is the opposite movement. We're not moving forward, we're being gathered in.
In the next portion, we're going to hear about the spies. The whole generation is going to start dying off. There's an ingathering that happens here, where we're not so much going forward anymore as everything of this generation is falling apart. This portion really encapsulates the movement from the beginning of the story to how the story ends up and the trajectory that it follows.
Rivky: There's something about that that's so sad, Ami. Like, you know, you mentioned before very quickly, don't read with the end in mind, and I think that's what we try to do when we read the Torah. We try to read the Torah, clearing our minds of the things that we know are going to happen, the good and the bad that we know are going to happen. But it's just so sad to imagine at the beginning of this portion, the people are so excited and Moses is excited and God is excited, and it's like, okay, we're going to do this. We're getting up, we're going to Israel.
You know, God maybe knows what's going to happen, but maybe He, too, sort of in the back of His mind is hoping that things are going to be different and everything is going to turn around. It's just so sad to imagine the transition from the beginning of this portion to what is going to come so soon and everything just falling apart and people in so much pain and the people sitting and the people dying. It's really just hard to think about. It's really just sad.
Ami: It is really tragic. I want to relate now back to that kind of bizarre of the Rabbis that there are really three books of the Torah that we encounter in this single portion. If I had to name those three books based on what we talked about today, Rivky, I'd say the first book of Numbers, from the beginning of Numbers until the first of those backwards Nuns, "Vayehi binso'a ha'aron," that's the story of the promise. It's the book of, if you will, what the desert experience was supposed to be. "Vayehi binso'a ha'aron" and then that next verse "U'venuchoh yomar," the ark is traveling, God is wiping out the enemies, God is resting with the people, it's actually the idyllic picture of what could have happened but didn't.
Rivky: Right, the desert that could have been.
Ami: It's the desert that could, it's the triumph that could have been or that maybe was for just a moment. Then the next story of the complaints and the gathering in and the quails is the story of what actually happened in the desert.
Now, like you said, there's something really tragic about there, something very disappointing. I want to say that if there's any silver lining in this portion, I think it actually has to do with those words of isuf and ru'ach, that gathering and that spirit in the stories that we saw of Moses' prophecy spreading out to the people and even of this generation ultimately dying out and a new generation taking their place.
The Silver Lining for Moses and the Israelites in the WildernessAmi: What ends up happening, yeah, Moses moves from being the trumpet-blaster and the whole movement of the camp to being the one who's complaining, I can't take these people anymore; just kill me. It's a terrible consequence, a terrible situation he ends up in. But what happens from there is not only that we end up losing.
On the one hand, we end up losing the dream, if you will. The dream was that the Tabernacle would be built and we'd all travel and just end up in the Land of Israel in a couple of days or weeks. That didn't happen, but what did happen was that the prophetic spirit of Moses became spread more among the people.
Something about the structure as it was, with Moses as their leader and these specific people, this generation who left Egypt along with Moses, something about this structure wasn't able to fulfill the promise, wasn't able to make it the Promised Land. What ends up happening is that Moses' spirit gets spread out among the people. Now, there are 70 elders. Now, there's more prophecy. There are these two random guys hanging out in the camp and they're also prophets.
We didn't mention this, but when that happens, Joshua gets really upset. He turns to Moses and says, "Moses, you won't imagine, Eldad and Medad, they're prophesying in the camp." And Moses says, "What are you so upset, Joshua? If it were up to me, everybody in this nation would be prophets."
It seems like as long as Moses held that role of leadership vis-à-vis these specific people, the ones who left Egypt, they couldn't make it. The dream was not only for there to be a powerful leader who brought the people and the Tabernacle into the Land of Israel. The dream was for there to be a unified nation that all somehow were in touch with the spirit of God, that were in touch with the purpose of their being here and of their entering the land. That happens, ultimately, by this generation dying off and by a new generation taking their place.
In my eyes, that's the silver lining in this transition that happens in Parashat Beha'alotecha. The dream dies for the generation who left Egypt, but there's the beginning of a new trajectory. We're not even there yet. We just get an inkling of that there's going to be a change in the structure, and that happens here with new prophets.
It's going to happen in the coming portions with new people who are going to enter the land. It's not even going to be the same people. It all begins here in Beha'alotecha with this tragic break in the narrative and what looks like the beginning of the end of this generation. Underneath that whole story, it's also the new generation that's sprouting.
Rivky: There's something really bittersweet about that. I think you're totally right, Ami, that it's painful and difficult, but there's also, you know, there is that silver lining there. I also think about the language parallels that are so interesting of gathering which, to a certain extent, means slowing or stopping but there's also a closeness. When the people wait for Miriam before they go on to travel, they're also kind of showing a certain love for her.
In the same vein, I think about, you know, we were so surprised when God gets angry at the people, He's so upset and then we turn to Moses and he, too, is so upset. It's almost like if we really don't read with the end in mind, we think that's it.
The Changing Story Between Moses and the Israelites in the WildernessRivky: Often, Moses is the only thing that stops God from destroying the people. But when Moses turns to God and says that's it, I'm done with this people, God doesn't say oh, finally you're on my side, I'm going to destroy them. God doesn't reject the people.
God says oh, okay, Moses is, you know, there's a lot of other, that could be a whole conversation in and of itself, why does God then seem to soften? God doesn't reject them and that almost feels like, it shows itself in that other word, that word of ru'ach, where God's ru'ach stays with the people and God gives nevu'ah, God gives prophecy to these other people and God brings food to them.
You know, they're complaining. They're being so annoying right now, but God still will not reject them. God stays with them. Over these 40 years, as God sort of says okay, these people are maybe not going to be ready, but we just got to get the next generation up to snuff to be able to be in full relationship with me and be able to then enter the land and be able to continue that.
He doesn't leave us. He does reject us. There's something really intense and, again, I guess bittersweet. It is sad and it's really sad to think about, but there's also something kind of beautiful about it in that relationship with God that continues over these 40 years.
Ami: There's something really beautiful in what you're pointing out there, Rivky. When Moses can no longer stand up for the people and he's the one who falls in his estimation of them, so God is the one that picks up the slack.
Ami: I'll just throw in one more thing there. If you look at Moses and God's way of talking in the second half of the portion, they really talk about themselves in the role of parent. Moses says, "What am I, their mother?" When Miriam is sick, Aaron turns to Moses and says, "Don't let her be like the infant who leaves its mother womb with half its flesh eaten."
The Rabbis basically say Aaron is turning to Moses and saying, "We all come from the same womb, Moses, can't you pray for your sister? Can't you see her as one who emerged from the womb that you emerged from?" Then God turns around and says, "And if her father spat in her face, what would you do?" It really seems like Moses and God are playing mom and dad for the people. Like it or not, they're stuck with the people. When one can't take them anymore, the other one is going to pick up the slack.
Rivky: That's actually a great place to stop because we have a bunch – I didn't mean to do this, but I have to plug the Aleph Beta website – we actually have a bunch of videos that particularly to not only this story about Miriam and tzarat and we discuss these really in depth in Parsha videos that relate to the tzarat parshiyot. We have a ton of videos on Beha'alotecha, on the people in the desert. There is so much more content.
Ami, I know that, you know, you probably don't know. You probably don't watch these videos so often. So if you want to really jump in there, just check out our website. I guess if people listening at home, also, if you like what you're hearing, way more content at alephbeta.org. Again, 50 percent off your first month, just put in the coupon code PARSHALAB when you join. Ami, thank you so, so much for joining me today. This was incredible.
Ami: Thank you, Rivky. This was awesome.
Rivky: Bye, everyone.