Rabbi Moshe Aberman
Former Rosh Kollel (Chicago, 1997-99)
Currently Torah Advisor to the Shlichim

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Parashat Behaalotcha clearly has two segments. Beginning with the Glory of the Mishkan and the anointment of the levi’im, leading to the organization of the first journey from Har Sinai to Eretz Yisrael, to be accompanied by the blowing of the Horns. However, immediately after the first three-day journey, everything seems to disintegrate, “The people took to complaining bitterly before the LORD”. Shortly after that “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving”. The riffraff begin with gluttonous cravings but then, “the Israelites wept and said, If only we had meat to eat”. What begins with the riffraff spreads to the broader population in short time.

The surprising aspect of the story is Moshe’s response. “Moshe heard the people weeping… and Moshe was distressed.” Our expectation is that Moshe would direct his anger to the people and reprimand them, but that does not happen. On the contrary, Moshe directs his frustration at God. “And Moshe said to the LORD, “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant, to the land that You have promised on oath to their fathers? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people, when they cry before me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me.”
Why does Moshe respond in this manner?

The Netziv in his introduction to Sefer Bamidbar explains why the Rabbis titled this book as the “Book of Census” (Numbers), disregarding other important components. “Since the main theme of the book is the replacement and change of God’s conduct with his nation when entering the land of Israel from his conduct with them in the dessert. That in the dessert their conduct was in a realm of glory walking alongside Moshe, which is completely beyond nature. While in Eretz Yisrael they conducted themselves in a natural way, with the hidden protection of the Kingdom of Heaven blessed be He”.
The book of Bamidbar reflects the transition from a heavenly conduct to a natural one. “In truth the primary transition is noted in the two censuses…  they differed in form of how Israel conducted themselves…  therefore the first time, they were counted according to the flags in the four winds like a chariot to the divine spirit…  not so in the census in Parashat Pinchas”.

This transition is gradual, taking place primarily in the fortieth year but begins in our Parasha. “This is the intent of our Rabbis (Shabbat 115) that the section of ‘Vayehi binsoa ha’aron’ is a book into itself to teach us that the transition began with ‘The people took to complaining”.

In light of the Netziv’s words, we can begin to understand the sudden change in mood that occurred in the Parasha. The glory of the first half is a reflection of the heavenly conduct. Followed by the first journey heading towards Eretz Yisrael and with it the initial change to a natural guidance. This transition raises concerns. They are concerned that if the direct heavenly interaction will be replaced by a natural guidance so too will they lose the Mana. If so “who will feed us meat” here in the dessert? “We remember the fish… the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” where will those be found out in the dessert? “There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to”, and how long will that last?

Accordingly, Moshe’s response makes sense. Moshe turns to God stating as long as your conduct with the nation was a miraculous heavenly one I too could lead them. However, now as we head to a natural way of conduct “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant… that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me… Where am I to get meat … I cannot carry all this people by myself”. Therefore, God responds, “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people… they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone”.