Along with the complainers, righteous Israelites who failed to stand in the face of the ungratefulness and uplift the spirit of the people, were also punished * The silence of the elders of Israel widened the breach in the people’s trust in Moses and Aaron, and brought upon Israel the sin of the Spies and the bitter punishment that followed * The first breach was created when Jethro asked to return to his country
In this week’s Torah portion ‘Behaalotcha’, the renewed journey to the Land of Israel began. The first journey was interrupted by the sin of the Golden Calf; it then became clear that the road to the Promised Land was fraught with obstacles, and that the Jewish people must prepare in the best possible manner so they could withstand the anticipated battles with its external enemies, and with its internal enemy – the evil inclination.
To this end, God commanded Moshe to place the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the center of the camp, to sanctify the tribe of the Levites, and to situate them around the Mishkan so they could preserve the holiness of the sanctuary, enlist and order all men of army age – “each one in his own camp, and each one designated by the banner for his division” – heading towards the conquest and settlement of the Land, and to order the twelve tribes of Israel around the Mishkan, so that the entire camp would express the grand vision. And behold, the cloud of God rose above the camp, and the journey began. “And when the ark went forth, Moshe said, ‘Arise, O God, and scatter your enemies! Let your foes flee before You!’ (Numbers 10:35).
God wanted to hasten their entry into the Land, and to bring them there quickly in three days, however, already at the first encampment, the wicked at the edge of the camp began to complain about the hardships of the journey, and the righteous did not rise up against them to object. “The people began to complain, and it was evil in God’s ears. When God heard it, He displayed His anger, and God’s fire flared out, consuming the edge of the camp” (Numbers 11: 1).
Who Were the People Consumed at the Edge of the Camp
Simply speaking, the most wicked complained and were consumed by fire. However, on the other edge of the camp as well, among the most righteous, people were punished. These were the elders of the nation, who in the past guarded the embers of faith in Egypt, however when Moshe returned from Midian, God commanded them to accompany him to Pharaoh, and demand he let Israel go; but out of fear, they slipped away, one by one, and returned to their homes. God repaid them at Mount Sinai, and commanded that only Moshe ascend the mountain, while they remained with the people at the foot of the mountain (Exodus 5: 1, and Rashi there). Instead of realizing their sin and accepting its ‘tikun‘ (rectification) with humility, the elders did not pay enough respect at the giving of the Torah, and out of flippantly eating and drinking, they gazed at the ‘Shekhina’ (Divine Presence), warranting death. However, God did not wish to disturb the rejoicing of the Torah, and postponed their punishment until the incident of the complainers. This was their last chance to rectify their sin: had they shown concern for the honor of Heaven, and protested against the complainers, they would have rectified their sins and saved themselves. However, acting indifferently, they were punished, and consumed by the fire of God (Exodus 24:10-11, and Rashi).
The Situation Worsens
When there was no protest on the part of elders of the nation, the mixed multitude – the Erev Rav, and the frivolous among the people also began yearning for meat, and complaining. Once again, the great leaders of Israel did not rise up to object, and as a result, many of the Israelites joined in the crying. Seemingly, they only asked for zucchini and watermelons, but in truth, their sin was immense. Instead of seeing all the good that God had done for them, they wept. “God became very angry, and Moshe also considered it wrong” (Numbers 11:10).
The Attempt to Repair the Breach by the Seventy Elders
It was still possible to rectify the situation. To this end, God commanded the appointment of seventy elders, those same foremen who selflessly gave themselves up to be flogged in Egypt for the Israelites. When Pharaoh decreed Israel be forced to hard labor, he appointed police officers to strike the Israelites in order to expedite the completion of the work quota imposed upon them. However, those same foremen had mercy on their brethren and refrained from oppressing them, and as a result, the Egyptians beat the foremen, as written in the Torah: “The Israelite foremen, whom Pharaoh’s administrators had appointed, were flogged.” Because they bore Israel’s sorrow, bending their backs to suffer the lashes in their stead, God commanded Moshe appoint them to the Sanhedrin, and imparted some of the spirit which rested on him, to them: “When the spirit descended on them, they gained the gift of prophecy and did not lose it” (Exodus 5:11, Numbers 11:16 and Rashi).
With all their greatness, the seventy elders failed to rectify the sin, to protest against the complainers, and assist Moshe in leading the people, to encourage them to rise above the needs of the hour, and follow Moshe with devotion and enthusiasm to the Land of Israel. This is the communal responsibility required of the righteous in order to enter the Land, however, they were unable to rise to a ‘Clal Yisraeli’ level, and therefore they did not receive further prophecies.
Only Moshe Stood in the Breach
The people continued complaining and hurling accusations towards Heaven, suggesting that God lacked the ability to feed and gratify them. God gave them flocks of quail, but also showed them that as usual, the pursuit of lust removes man from the world; the same meat they petulantly requested turned into an obstacle, for all those who lustfully fell upon the quail to eat – were punished and died by the wrath of God.
Nevertheless, the basic sin was not rectified, and the righteous did not feel the responsibility to protest against the sinners and uplift them spiritually. The breaches continued penetrating deeper, reaching the holier sections of the nation, to the point where even Aharon and Miriam spoke against Moshe, implying he was acting with excessive celibacy. Undoubtedly, their intentions were for the good, but since complaining had become widespread amongst the people, they also failed to take into account the honor of Moshe Rabbeinu, the messenger of God, as they should have. There was no one left to protest them, except God.
Even though the wicked were punished at the edge of the camp, the mixed multitude and the lustful Israelites were also punished, and Aaron and Miriam were reprimanded – the righteous did not wake up to accept upon themselves that from then on, they would stand in protest against sinners. The people had become accustomed in times of crisis to blame God and Moshe Rabbeinu, instead of conducting a soul-searching aimed at self-correction.
The Terrible Fall
Thus, the Children of Israel’s faith in God and Moshe Rabbeinu was breached, and they asked to send spies before entering the Land. When the spies returned, they spoke slanderously of the land, expressing their opinion that the people of Israel would not be able to conquer the Land. At that moment, the generation stood before its greatest trial. Yehoshua and Calev tried to oppose the spies and save the nation, however, it was too late. Their words fell on deaf ears. The righteous had become accustomed to God saving them, and having Moshe Rabbeinu stand alone against the wicked. But when the Divine response to the words of the spies did not come immediately, they too were filled with fear of the challenge of entering the Land, and together with all the people, wept that night.
In their crying, they essentially despised the cherished Land, and turned their backs on the main challenge for which they had left Egypt – to reveal the word of God in the Land, as the Torah says: “I will bring you to the land regarding which I raised My hand, swearing that I would give it to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I will give it to you as an inheritance. I am God” (Exodus 6:8; ibid, 3:17).
It was then that the verdict of destruction for that entire generation was decreed, and the entrance into the Land was delayed for forty years, until all of their corpses fell in the desert, and their sons could enter the Land. And since that generation was considered a ‘dor day’ah’ (literally, the generation of wisdom) – a generation that had experienced the enslavement of Egypt, the miracle of redemption, and the giving of the Torah – the night on which they sinned, the night of Tisha B’Av, became a night of crying for generations.
Jethro and his Descendants
If we delve further, we find that perhaps the first breach, even before the complainers, began with the difficulty of Jethro, the greatest of converts, to integrate into Israel. When Israel began to go to the Land of Israel, Moses invited Jethro to join Israel. However, Jethro replied: “’I would rather not go. I wish to return to my land and my birthplace'” (Numbers 10: 30). Our Sages explained that Jethro feared that between Moshe, Aaron, and all the Sages of Israel, he would have no place and would feel unnecessary, and thus preferred to return to Midian. Perhaps he even thought of trying to spread the word of God there (Sifri Zuta).
Some commentators explained that Jethro understood the Land of Israel would be divided among the Children of Israel who were enslaved in Egypt, and then he and his seed would have no inheritance in the land, and would have to live among Israel in disgrace (Rashi).
However, Moshe Rabbeinu implored him to stay with Israel in order to continue to contribute to them from his wisdom and guidance, as written: “Do not abandon us. After all, you are familiar with the places where we are going to camp in the desert, and you can be our guide”. In response to the fear that Jethro and his seed would have no place in the land, he said that Israel would supply him goodness from the good of the Land of Israel, as written: “If you go with us, we will share with you whatever good God grants us’ (ibid, 32). However, Moshe could not guarantee Jethro a permanent inheritance in the Land, because the Land was promised to the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. However, he promised that the Israelites would take care of Jethro’s descendants from the goodness of the land.
When Israel conquered the Land and Jericho, a fertile oasis, they consecrated Jericho as a place from which food would be supplied to the Temple, and they determined that until the Temple was built, the sons of Jethro would live there in tents, and their residence there lasted four hundred and forty years (Rashi and Radak, Shofitim 1:16).
Apparently, during all those years, many of Jethro’s sons integrated into the tribes of Israel, and after the Temple was built, some of the rest of them in Jericho, joined them. However, there remained a nucleus of the Jethroites called “Kinim” after one of Jethro’s nicknames, or “Bnei Rachav” after their father, and they continued to live in tents in the desert on the outskirts of Nahalat Yehuda and Binyamin, in areas not divided among the Israelite families. They were content with the minimum, and clung to God. When, according to the command of the prophet Elisha, Yehu rebelled against the dynasty of Ahab, and was about to destroy the worship of Baal from Israel, Yehu sought the help of Yehonadav the son of Rechav, and added him to his chariot (Kings 2:10: 15-16).
Two hundred years later, when the prophet Jeremiah (Chapter 35) prophesied about the destruction, and reproved Israel for not adhering to God’s ways, he mentioned for example the sons of Rechav who kept their father’s commandments, abstained from wine, and did not live in houses but only in tents, so that they would always remember God, and live long lives on earth. As a result, those who went through the destruction suffered less torment and loss, and merited that they always produced Talmidei Chachamim (Sefri Zuta there; Mekhilta D’Rashbi Shemot 18, Rashi).
The Crisis and the Correction
It is possible that the crisis that led to the Sin of the Spies began with Jethro feeling not sufficiently desirable in Israel, until the point where he thought of returning to Midian. This distress in the greatest of converts created a breach that widened to the complainers, up until the Sin of the Spies. Even after Moshe Rabbeinu assuaged Jethro, and Israel gave his descendants Jericho until the construction of the Temple – because his seed did not receive an orderly and permanent inheritance, and his principal seed lived in tents, Israel’s grasp on the Land was also not properly established, until the point where sins abounded, the Land was destroyed, and Israel was exiled from their Land. However, the legacy of the descendants of Jethro, who by the greatness of their righteousness, despite their being converts without an inheritance lived in tents and clung to the Holy Land and worshiped God, has remained for generations in Israel. By virtue of this, even when living in a land not their own, Israel could maintain their devotion to God.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated