THE BELIEF COMMUNITY
Rabbi David Walk
Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Remember those road trips when that's all the kids in the back seat seemed to say for hours on end? Multiply that by 600,000 and you can begin to understand Moshe's frustration in this week's Torah reading. When this huge assemblage of humanity begins to move at the beginning of chapter eleven, the very next topic is the whining and complaining of the masses. It's so sad, because things began so beautifully. When the Jews set out on the road to Israel and destiny, we have a beautiful, poetic verse describing the scene: And whenever the Ark set out, Moses would shout, "Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered! Let them flee before you (Numbers 10:35)!" It must have been a majestic scene. But we know this phenomenon from wars as well. They all start with great enthusiasm; parades and flags and bands. They all end with great sadness; depression and injuries and coffins. However, the march through the desert needn't have degenerated this way.
Travel with entire families is a cause for great stress even today. Wind back the clock even a century and travel goes from stressful to full fledged nightmarish. Before mechanized vehicles, any journey of more than a few miles was a major undertaking. It's no wonder that the Talmud prescribes tefilat haderech, the travelers' prayer, for any trip over a parsa, about four kilometers. If you look at the Jews' record for complaining, and it's a very long list, you'll notice that it always was in the context of movement. The Jews complained after the splitting of the Sea because they were on the move, they complain here right after they leave Mount Sinai, and later in Numbers the Jews begin to complain again after the death of Miriam which happens right after they start to travel again after almost 38 years in Kadesh Barnea. That theme is consistent, but here Moshe can't stand the complaining because it is so vehement. Why is that?
Although there are many plausible answers to this question, I want to suggest that Moshe has just proclaimed the two beautiful verses: Whenever the ark set out, Moshe said, Rise up, Lord; let Your enemies be scattered; and let those who hate You flee before You. And when the Ark was set down, he would say, Rest with us, God, Stay with the many, Many thousands of Israel (Numbers 10:35-36). This was Moshe's prayer, and he fully expected it to be fulfilled. They had left the mountain of God, but (as the Ramban pointed out) they had the portable Temple with them to replace Mount Sinai and keep the presence of God in their midst. Therefore, it was a major disappointment that the marchers reacted to the hardships of travel this way. But there is more to the story.
The word used to describe the whiners is revealing. They are called kimitonanim. This term is very hard to translate. Again, there are many opinions, but here's mine. I think the best rendition is: they became like those who made themselves grumblers. In other words there are two groups being referred to. Those who have a history of complaining, and those who joined them. I would like to suggest that those with a whining track record are the asafsuf, who are mentioned in verse four, who are identified as the eirav rav or mixed multitude. These were non-Israelites who left Egypt with our ancestors. They can be blamed for the immediate negative attitude in many circumstances.
Rav Yitzchak Hutner (1906-1980) in his famous collection of essays called the Pachad Yitzchak (Shavuot, article 39) explains that Moshe's prayer a few verses back specifically had them in mind. When Moshe asked that the enemies (oyvecha) be scattered, he meant these camp followers when they join openly with our foes. Afterward he beseeches God that those who hate God should flee. That reference is also to the eirav rav but it's when their animosity is more subtle, while they act as a fifth column in our midst destroying our esprit de corps by their constant whining at every opportunity. So in this approach to our story, Moshe was extremely disappointed that just a few days (according to the Midrash three days) out from Mount Sinai, many Jews joined this rabble. Moshe expected better from the covenantal people.
At this juncture Moshe turned to God in shock, but also with tremendous trepidation, because if this is the nation's behavior while the silhouette of the famous peak was still in the rear view mirror, what would life be like deeper into the dangerous wilderness? It was these thoughts, I believe, which brought about the powerful reaction a few verses hence: Why have You dealt ill with Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You lay the burden of all this people on me? Have I conceived all these people? Have I brought them forth, that You should say to me, Carry them in your bosom, as a nursing father carries the sucking child, to the land which You swore to their fathers to give them (verses 11 and 12)?
I think that this brings us to the essential point of this story. The true test of an individual's values and integrity isn't how that person behaves in a controlled environment, but how this individual performs in the 'real world' when the situation is tense and unpredictable. It's critically important how they interact with each other, and with Moshe. Judaism has always maintained that interpersonal and business relationships are a better measure of piety than devotion in prayer.
As a teacher it's embarrassing that the Midrash compares the actions of the Jews to those of school children who gleefully run out of school after the final bell to leave all their lessons behind. It's sad. We want our teachings to survive and thrive outside the classroom, synagogue and shadow of Mount of Sinai.