PARASHAT BEHA’ALOTCHA: Escape to freedom

Mature adults are expected to recognize the importance of ideological commitment and to see moments of vacation as a break meant for reenergizing themselves for a higher purpose.

Mount Sinai [pictured today at the summit] (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Mount Sinai [pictured today at the summit]
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
At the center of this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, two verses describe carrying the Ark of the Covenant – the ark that contained the Two Tablets of the Covenant etched with the Ten Commandments given at Mount Sinai to the Jewish nation. The ark is described in these verses in a manner known to us from other books of the Bible, as a Divine presence protecting the nation from its enemies:
“So it was, whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, Arise, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee from You. And when it came to rest he would say, Repose, O Lord, among the myriads of thousands of Israel” (Numbers 10:35-36).
These verses have a unique characteristic. In the Torah and in printed Humashim, these verses are written with signs surrounding them. What is the significant of these signs?
The Talmud debates this issue, and one of the opinions claims that these signs are there to teach us that these verses are not in their original place. Based on the order of events, these verses should have been elsewhere, but for some reason were “cut” from their original location when the Torah was being written – and “pasted” here.
“And why did Moses our Master write them here? To make a pause between one calamity and another. What was the second calamity? ‘And the people were looking to complain’; and the first – ‘They traveled from the mountain of the Lord’” (Shabbat 116).
According to this opinion, these verses, which express confidence and faith in God, Who protects His nation from its enemies, were written here to break the continuity of negative occurrences described in the Torah. What were these events?
One clearly negative event described right after these verses is when the nation complained about the difficulty of walking in the desert and then continued to complain – absurdly – about missing the period of enslavement in Egypt.
What was the first negative event? The sages of the Talmud answer: “They traveled from the mountain of the Lord.” The travel from Mount Sinai, the mountain of the Lord, where the nation experienced a public revelation and where they camped for an entire year, is interpreted by the Talmud as a “calamity.”
There is no doubt that the actual travel from Mount Sinai itself was not in and of itself a negative event, for two reasons. First, the travel was commanded by God; and second, they were embarking on a journey that ultimately ended with their arrival in Canaan, the Promised Land. Why, then, would this travel be considered negative?
The commentators that dealt with this question quoted a midrash whose source is unknown to us. According to that midrash, the reason this travel from Mount Sinai was considered negative was that “they traveled from Mount Sinai happily, as a child escaping school, saying: lest He give us additional commandments.” The travel itself was positive, but the atmosphere when they left Mount Sinai was like a class at the end of the school year being let out for vacation.
We can’t complain about children. The joy of impending vacation is understandable and natural. But mature adults are expected to recognize the importance of ideological commitment and to see moments of vacation as a break meant for reenergizing themselves for a higher purpose. Vacation is not an end unto itself. It is a human need to be met, but not like a child being let out of school just waiting to escape and forget all the knowledge he acquired throughout the year.
As we read later in this Torah portion, there is a reason the nation is compared to a child. Indeed, this was an initial stage in the nation’s spiritual development. They had left Egypt only about a year before; the suffering and shame of slavery was still fresh in their minds. And then, with the first sign of difficulty, they wished to return to Egypt. According to the midrash, the travel from Mount Sinai was very welcome – something natural at the stage of pre-adolescence – to be set free, to throw off the yoke, to escape commitment.
Commitment is not burdensome. On the contrary, it is what gives our life meaning. It is precisely from commitment that man finds the inner freedom that directs him to positive actualization and creativity. As Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (11th-century poet) wrote: “The servant of God – he alone is free.”
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.