Parashat Beha'alotcha: Lost in the Present

"Every good officer knows how important it is that each soldier has a feeling of connectedness to a familial or tribal narrative for the sake of which the soldier is ready to sacrifice his life."

May 28, 2010 17:14
3 minute read.
A woman prays at a grave. [illustrative]

praying at graves 58. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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“And the nation became evil” (Numbers 11:1)

From this week’s reading of Beha’alotcha, the Book of Numbers takes a dramatic turn, ushering in the sin of the scouts, the rebellions of Korah and Zimri ben Salou, and the general squabbling which resulted in the death of that generation in the desert.

The words which signal this destructive dénouement are difficult to translate: “And the nation became evil ‘mit’onenim’” (Numbers 11:1), a word which only appears in the Bible this one time, and is generally translated as “complainers” (as if it had been written “mitlonenim”). How can we explain this sudden downward spiral, especially after Numbers began with such a hopeful description of the tribes surrounding the Sanctuary, the Kohanim and Levites at their proper stations, and the army poised for the conquest of Israel?

I believe the answer is found in the midrashic name of this book: The Book of Censuses. There are two censuses taken: the first at the outset of Numbers, and the second in Chapter 26, in the midst of the Israelite rebellions against Moses. How the Israelites are to be identified for each census is radically different, and herein lies the reason for the apparent spiritual decline.

The first census is introduced as follows: “Take a census of the entire assembly of the children of Israel according to their families, according to their fathers’ households, every male individually… everyone who goes out to the army of Israel” (Num. 1:2-2). Rashi explains that each individual is listed according to his tribe, his father’s house, and his individual name; only those above the age of 20 – the minimum age for army service – were included.

By contrast, Targum Onkelos interprets the word “l’mishpehotam” to mean “their children” rather than “their forebears,” or “their tribes.”

Even from a more general perspective, the “yihus” (familial status) that one accrues for oneself is far more important than the pedigree one receives from one’s forbears. When I was the rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue, much of my time was spent making matches. I would often receive phone calls from out-of-town parents anxious about the impending shidduch between their child and someone about whom they knew little, asking: “And what about the family, the yihus?”

I had a stock response: “I guarantee you a better yihus than our King Messiah. After all, King David had as his forebears a Moabite convert from an act of incest on his maternal side and the result of a forbidden sexual relationship between a man and his daughter-in-law on his paternal side.”

Nevertheless, Rashi is still seen as the most classical commentary, and since l’mishpehotam precedes leveit avotam (fathers’ household) in the verse, the simple reading would favor Rashi’s interpretation of “tribal forebears” over Onkelos’s “children.” Moreover, Rashi’s interpretation helps us understand the crisis which occurred.

The second census has altogether different instructions: “Take a census of the entire assembly of the children of Israel according to their father’s houses, all who go out to the army of Israel” (Num. 26: 2). Missing are two crucial points found in the first census – the tribal background and the individual name.

Every good officer knows how important it is that each soldier has a sense of pride in his mission. This impetus derives from a historical tradition, a feeling of connectedness to a familial or tribal narrative for the sake of which the soldier is ready to sacrifice his life. Without this historical connection, the individual will be without the morale required to act with courage and commitment.

The Israelites at Sinai were imbued with the mission to be a “holy nation and kingdom of priest-teachers,” to set out for Zion from whence the God of peace and morality would be revealed.

Somehow, they lost this sense of connectedness to their past during that first year in the wilderness. The Netziv explains the Hebrew “mit’onenim” as deriving from the phrase “anna v’anna,” to wander hither and thither, without a moral compass. In the absence of connection to an idealistic past, they gave up their dream of a consecrated future – and had to die forlorn where they were.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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