April 15, 2024
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At this point in Sefer Bamidbar, Bnei Yisrael were now ready to continue their journey from Har Sinai to inherit the Promised Land. The sefer “should have” been the story of that journey and their inheritance of the land. Tragically, in Sefer Bamidbar those goals are never attained.

Had nothing “gone wrong,” it would have been precisely at this point that Bnei Yisrael should have begun their magnificent journey to the Promised Land. Instead, the next 16 chapters discuss exactly the opposite, i.e. how (and why) Bnei Yisrael did not inherit the land. In those chapters, the Torah describes numerous incidents when Bnei Yisrael rebelled against God, culminating with God’s decision not to allow that generation to enter the land.

What Went Wrong

So what went wrong? What caused Bnei Yisrael to sin at the incidents of the mit’onenim (complainers), the mit’avim (those who lust) and the meraglim (spies) etc.

Chazal find a hint in the pasuk that describes Bnei Yisrael’s departure from Har Sinai: “And they traveled from God’s mountain…” (see 10:33–34).

The Midrash comments: “Like a child leaving school—running away, in the same manner Bnei Yisrael ran away from Har Sinai a three-day distance, for they studied [too much] Torah at Har Sinai…”

Even though they studied God’s laws at Har Sinai, it seems as though the spirit of those laws were not internalized. The people were indeed looking forward to leaving Har Sinai, but they were not looking forward to keeping God’s laws in Eretz Canaan.

In this manner, the Midrash is highlighting the underlying reason that led to these sins. Once Bnei Yisrael left with the wrong attitude, it was inevitable that they would sin.

Too Holy to Lead

Despite the severity of chet ha-egel (Sin of the Golden Calf), Bnei Yisrael’s sin was the result of a misguided desire to fill the spiritual vacuum created by Moshe’s absence. In contrast, the sin of the mit’avim seems to have been totally physical—an uncontrollable lust for food.

Chet ha-egel presented an educational challenge that Moshe Rabbeinu is willing to accept, i.e. to take this misguided desire and channel it in the proper direction.

However, after the lustful sin of the mit’avim, Moshe Rabbeinu simply gives up. He is unable to fathom how this nation, after spending an entire year at Har Sinai, has become so preoccupied with such mundane desires. Moshe simply does not have the educational tools to deal with such a low level of behavior.

God finds it necessary to take some of the ruach (spirit) from Moshe and transfer it to the 70 elders. God realizes that Moshe must now share some of his leadership responsibilities with elders who can possibly deal more realistically with this type of crisis.

One could suggest an additional insight. In Sefer Bamidbar, Moshe Rabbeinu could be considered over qualified or too holy to lead the people.

Ultimately, Yehoshua will be chosen to lead Bnei Yisrael into the Promised Land. As the dedicated student of Moshe Rabbeinu, and the experienced leader of his own tribe (and of the entire army in the battle against Amalek), Yehoshua possesses the necessary leadership qualities. He is also sufficiently down to earth, and therefore will be able to lead Bnei Yisrael into the land.

The lesson that we can learn from this parsha is certainly not how to “criticize” Moshe Rabbeinu. Rather, it should remind us when teaching—to keep in mind the emotional needs of our students; and when studying—to keep in mind the potential of how much we can gain from our teachers.


Rabbi Menachem Leibtag is an internationally acclaimed Tanach scholar and online Jewish education pioneer. He is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers
Bureau (www.mizrachi.org/speakers).

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