“The people took to complaining – evil in Hashem’s ears” (11:1). This pasuk marks the first of a series of calamities that befell Benei Yisrael during their sojourn through the wilderness. The Torah here begins recording the many sins committed by Am Yisrael as they traveled the desert, sins of indulgence, complaints and challenges to the authority of Moshe and Aharon. What is the origin of all these sins? Why does the nation complain so much over everything? Why do they lose trust and faith in their leadership?
“When the ark would travel, Moshe said: Arise, Hashem, and let Your enemies scatter, and Your foes shall flee from You. And when it would come to rest, he would say: Reside, Hashem, among the tens of thousands of Israel.” (10:35-36) These two pesukim are surrounded in the Sefer Torah by an upside-down letter “nun” on either end. These symbols set apart the two pesukim as if they were written in parentheses, separating them from the main body of the narrative. The Gemara (Shabbat 115b) writes: “Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel says: In the future, this parasha will be uprooted from here and written in its proper place. Why is written here? In order to interrupt between ‘the people took to complaining’ and ‘They set out from the Mountainof Hashem’ – which both involve calamity.” The Gemara explains that these pesukim do not belong in the context of this parasha, because they deal with the ark’s position as Benei Yisrael embarked and encamped. They actually belong in Parashat Bamidbar, but were transplanted to our parasha in order to separate between the two accounts of disaster.
As the Gemara says, the first of these two disasters is described in the pasuk, “They set out from the Mountainof Hashemfor a three-day journey” (10:33). What catastrophe does this pasuk describe? It simply tells of Benei Yisrael’s departure from Mount Sinai. Why does the Midrash view this journey as a calamity? Is this not what they were supposed to do – to leave Sinai and march towards Eretz Yisrael?
The answer emerges from a different Midrash: “They set out – they traveled from Mount Sinaifor a three-day journey like a child leaving school, who runs away and goes. So did they run away from Mount Sinai on a three-day journey, because they studied so much Torah at Sinai” (Midrash Yelamdenu). The first calamity, therefore, was the journey from the Mountain of God, leaving the “school,” abandoning Sinai, the very place where the nation had accepted the mitzvot with such joy and excitement, and now abandon it, escaping for a three-day journey. This appears to mark the beginning of the process of deterioration. Herein lies the root of the people’s sins, the basis and foundation of all the ensuing catastrophes.
Upon Am Yisrael’s departure from Egypt, it had to undergo a unique, challenging experience. The prophets spoke of this period as an extraordinary time, a period of “engagement” between Hashem and Benei Yisrael. There is still no country, there is no complete, permanent residence (like there is during marriage), and Benei Yisrael are cared for through miraculous, rather than natural, means. Hashem’s clouds of glory encircle them and protect them from the dangers of travel and enemy attack. As the prophet Yirmiyahu declares in the name of God, “I have remembered for you the kindness of your youth, your love as a bride, when you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.” The nation is called upon merely to devote themselves to Hashem, to trust Him, accept His mitzvot, and maintain their level of kedusha in the camp as they travel. But Am Yisrael failed this test on several occasions. They fled from Sinai, from the mitzvot, viewing them as a burden. They forgot their national destiny and historical mission, the very purpose for which they had been redeemed. When they forgot their destiny, they began complaining. When the nation knows itself and is united around a single purpose, it can withstand every crisis, it can approach hardships as mere challenges that it can and will overcome. But when the nation forgets its destiny and
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abandons its own identity, the hardships are no longer seen as challenges, but rather as failures, as a purposeless burden and a blind, undesirable fate. Thus, Chazal considered the first calamity to be the departure from the Mountainof Hashem, the escape from and abandonment of the nation’s identity and destiny.
This message applies as well in our times. We find a good deal of complaining among the Jews in Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora. Many Jews who have forgotten their self-identity are accustomed to complaining about the situation in Israel, the social, economic and security-related problems facing the country. These complaints do not lead to any specific purpose, but to the contrary, they stem from a loss of sense of purpose. When the goal is clear, the difficulties turn into a challenge, and the failures become opportunities for renewed growth.
We must learn the historical lesson extracted from our parasha. Leaving our source and destiny has a profound effect on our perception of reality. Whether we see a situation as a failure or challenge depends on our perspective, which itself depends on our attachment to our eternal origins.
“The eternal people are not afraid of a long journey.”