Skip to main content

The Order and Contents of Sefer Bamidbar (2)

Rav Aviya Hacohen



For Parashat Bemidbar, we distributed the first part of a shiur by Aviya Hacohen, outlining the meaning behind the order and contents of Sefer Bemidbar. That shiur related mostly to the first section of the sefer, through Parashat Beha'alotekha. The main point (to be succint) was that Sefer Bemidbar describes the expansion of kedusha from the mishkan-kohen complex to the entire Jewish people (machaneh).


For the sake of continuity, we will include here a short portion of the first part of this shiur, and then we will move onto new material dealing with the "second section" of Sefer Bemidbar, namely, the narrative of the complaints and rebellions in the desert. Since the shiur will cover a lot of ground, it will be very helpful to have a Tanakh open. You may also want to reread the shiur to Bemidbar, to refresh your memory.


In the second part of today's mailing, we are sending a short shiur by Rav Yaacov Medan, specifically about Parashat Shelach. It will come as no surprise that this shiur is not in total agreement with the ideas expressed by Aviya Hacohen.


The Order and Contents of Sefer Bamidbar, Part 2

by Aviya Hacohen

 At the end of Unit I of Sefer Bemidbar, the situation is ripe for the entry of Bnei Yisrael into the Promised Land, but the next unit, with its description of all their various complaints, indicates their unworthiness.

 Part II - Stories of Complaints 

This unit is placed at the center of Sefer Bemidbar, and deals with a series of national scandals: Tav'era (11:1-3); the lusting for meat (11:4-35); Miriam's tzara'at ("leprosy") (12); the spies (13-14); Korach (16-18); the smiting of the rock for water (20:12-13); and the copper snake (21:4-9). (Ba'al Pe'or [25] is a case apart, not only because its subject matter concerns idolatry without any explicit complaint to God, but also because of its location in the Sefer. For these reasons it does not seem to form an integral part of this unit.) In Sefer Shemot, too, there are stories of complaints, and we may ask with some justification what the difference is between these cases. Is there a qualitative difference between these two books, or is the division of these stories made only according to the different time-frames? The great similarity between some of the stories simplifies their comparison:

 A. Manna and quails (Shemot 16) - Lust for meat (Bemidbar 11:4-5)

 Sefer Shemot (16) records the story of how Bnei Yisrael complained upon reaching Midbar Sin: "If only we had died... in the land of Egypt... for you have brought us out to this desert to kill this entire congregation by starvation" (Shemot 16:13). In response, God gives the nation manna and quails. But in Bemidbar we are told that each day the nation received only manna. Wearying of the manna and desiring meat, the nation indeed receives meat, but "the anger of God burned against the nation, and God smote the nation with a very heavy blow" (11:33). Various commentators address different aspects of these stories; we shall concentrate here on the question of the difference between them. In Sefer Shemot the nation generally behaves like a baby, crying out for food, and quieting when this demand is fulfilled. In Bemidbar the situation is more complicated. The nation cannot be allowed to continue behaving like a baby, and for this reason "God's anger burned against the nation". A second issue raised by this story is the problem of leadership: Moshe expresses despair: "I cannot... bear this entire nation... if this is what You will do to me then kill me, I pray You" (11:14-15). Subsequently a measure of authority is bestowed on the seventy elders. At the end of the story we find Eldad and Meidad prophesying, a phenomenon which undermines the hegemony of Moshe's prophecy. (Yehoshua therefore demands that Moshe restrain them.) Even the most superficial reading of the story reveals that its two central issues are the state of the nation and the leadership. These issues are repeated in all the stories of the various complaints. In Sefer Shemot the nation is comparable to a baby; now the nation has "grown up" and must be guided and educated in the right direction.

 B. Masa and Meriva (Shemot 17:1-7) - Mei Meriva (Smiting of the rock) (Bemidbar 20:2-3)

 The story of the smiting of the rock raises two fundamental questions. Firstly, what was Moshe's actual sin? Secondly, what is the chronological relationship between this story and that of "Masa and Meriva"? 

Generations of commentators have addressed both questions. We shall not attempt to deal with the issue of the chronological order of these events, but will rather point out the difference between them. For the sake of brevity, let us adopt one explanation without subjecting it to debate with others: Moshe's sin lay in hitting the rock with the staff that was in his hand. This act demonstrated power in Moshe's hand, while a verbal action, mentioning God's name, would have demonstrated that it was not Moshe who stood at the center of this wondrous event but rather God. (This explanation combines the view of Rashi, who regards the essence of the sin as hitting the rock, and the view of Rabbeinu Chananel and the Ramban, both of whom explain that Moshe's sin was his declaration, "We shall bring you water" instead of "God will bring you water.") During the events leading up to the exodus from Egypt, the "staff" style of leadership was sufficient; now the nation requires a new style to lead them into the Land. The sign of the new style is the fact that it is no longer a case of a lone leader standing before the nation; the nation in its entirety now stands before God. A person who fails to grasp this concept is not worthy of leading the nation into the land. The nation, too, behaves again like a baby - crying for water, and failing to acknowledge thanks when the request is fulfilled. For this they are punished: they will not enter the land via the shorter route, but will rather be led around the land of Edom.

 In the incidents of the lusting for meat (Bemidbar 11) and Mei Meriva (Bemidbar 20), there are two central issues: the nation and the leadership. As mentioned, these issues form a sort of common denominator for all the stories of complaint. Miriam questions Moshe's leadership (Bemidbar 12); in both of the major sins in Bemidbar - the spies and Korach - Moshe's leadership is questioned by the princes of the nation; and in the story of the snakes we read how "the nation murmured against God and against Moshe" (21:5; see also 14:12, 16:13, 20:5). In almost all the stories of complaint in Sefer Bemidbar the nation suffers some form of punishment, in contrast to the complaints recorded in Sefer Shemot, where the nation's request is invariably granted. The nation's longing for Egypt indicates their unreadiness to enter the Land of Israel; they are therefore required to wander in the desert.  

This unit is arranged in the following chiastic order:

1. [Chovav ben Re'u'el the MIDIANITE (10:28-32)]

2. Tav'era (11:1-3)

3. Lusting for meat (11:4-35) - story about FOOD

4. MIRIAM'S tzara'at (leprosy) (12)

5. Spies (13-14)

6. Collection of laws (15)

5. Korach (16-18)

4. Red Heifer (19)

Death of MIRIAM (20:1)

3. Striking of the rock (20:12-13) - story about FOOD

2. Story of the snakes (21:4-9)

1. [Balak - elders of MIDIAN, Kozbi - daughter of MIDIANITE prince (22-25)]

 At the center of this unit (layer 5) stand the two "full feature" stories: the spies, and Korach. Both stories are built on successive waves of insurrection. God wants to destroy the entire congregation, and Moshe saves them. In both cases Moshe stands in conflict with the princes of the tribes.

 In both stories concerning Miriam (layer 4) there is a theme of death: first, "Do not be like a corpse" (12:12), and then her actual death. It is thematically logical, therefore, that the parasha of the red heifer (19), whideals with purification from contact with the dead, is placed in juxtaposition to the death of Miriam. Furthermore, even the parasha of Miriam's tzara'at contains some issues pertaining to ritual purity: "And Miriam was isolated outside of the camp for seven days" (12:14).

 The hitting of the rock and the lust for meat (layer 3) are both stories concerning food.

 In Tav'era (layer 2) there was no lack of food; the complaint was for the sake of complaining and nothing more. In the story of the snakes, Bnei Yisrael do mention their complaint concerning food (21:5), but God's reaction does not include any reference to it, leaving us with the impression that once again the complaint was simply for the sake of complaining. In both instances the nation cried to Moshe following God's punishment, and Moshe prayed on their behalf.

 The stories concerning the Midianites (layer 1) do not form an integral part of the theme of unit since they include no actual complaint, but I have included them in the schematic list above because owing to their positioning they fit perfectly into the unit's structure. It should be noted that the blessing and praise of Am Yisrael are mentioned in both of the "Midianite" stories.

 Chapter 15 (layer 6) is an exception to the theme of the unit, and I cannot add anything to what has already been said on this subject. [For a lengthy discussion, see "The Juxtaposition of the Parasha of the Spies and the Parasha of Korach" by B. Gezundheit in Alon Shvut 112 (Elul 5745).]

 Let us turn our attention to just a few subjects included in these chapters:

 Tzitzit (15:37-41) - Korach (16-18)

 "And they gathered against Moshe and Aharon... 'For the entire congregation is holy and God is amongst them; why then do you regard yourselves as superior to God's congregation?'" The claim of Korach and his companions was against the inflexible structure and hierarchy of Kohanim, Leviim and Israel. Why is the entire nation not being treated as a "kingdom of Kohanim"?! The basis for this claim is to be found in parashat tzitzit. 'Tzitzit,' after all, is reminiscent of one of the special priestly garments worn by the Kohen Gadol: "And you shall make a 'tzitz'... and you shall place it on a thread of blue" (Shemot 28:36-7). Nowhere else in Tanakh is there any mention of the words 'tzitz' or 'tzitzit,' or 'thread of blue.' The tzitzit are actually made of 'sha'atnez' (the otherwise forbidden combination of wool and linen in a single garment - see Devarim 22:9-12 with the Targum Yonatan, as well as the commentary Da'at Zekeinim), as are some of the fabrics in the Mishkan and the clothes worn by the Kohanim. In parashat tzitzit we read, "And you shall be holy to your God" (15:40), and concerning the Kohanim the Torah says, "They shall be holy to their God" (Vayikra 21:6). Tzitzit is in fact a "priestly garment" which is worn by every Israelite male. Therefore, Korach argues, anyone who wears a priestly garment must be holy, and "the entire congregation is holy." In fact, the secret of the connection between these parashot can be explained in contradictory ways. We can explain that Korach's mistake arose from a misunderstanding of the mitzva of tzitzit, but we may also explain otherwise: The Torah placed the parasha of tzitzit next to that of Korach to teach us that even though Korach sinned, there is nevertheless an element of truth behind his claim. (This explanation is to be found in various Chassidic works, especially in the discussion of Korach in "Pri Tzaddik" by R. Tzaddok HaKohen of Lublin.)

 Chapter 18 deals with gifts to the priests, representing the halakhic "conclusion" of the story of Korach.

 From Miriam's Death until the Conquest of Trans-Jordan (20-21)

 This parasha opens with the death of the leadership's old guard: Miriam dies at Kadesh, followed by the story of the striking of the rock as a result of which Moshe and Aharon will also not enter the land. Moshe sends messengers from Kadesh to the King of Edom asking for permission to lead the nation through his land. The king of Edom refuses, and Bnei Yisrael are forced to go all the way around the mountain. On the way, Aharon dies "on the border of the land of Edom," and during this journey they are also attacked by "the Canaanites, the King of Arad." The long road causes a situation whereby "the nation grew impatient with the way," and what follows is the story of the snakes. Thereafter we read of how messengers are sent to Sichon, and how the nation conquers both his land and that of Og. This parasha concludes, "And Bnei Yisrael journeyed and they camped in the plains of Moav on the opposite side of the Jordan River from Jericho" (22:1). Hence we see that the parasha is, for the main part, arranged chronologically. The question is, is it purely chronological? The parasha closes at the point which Bnei Yisrael have longed to reach throughout their wanderings in the desert, without success. Is there some hint in the parasha as to how Bnei Yisrael finally succeeded in reaching this point?

 The parasha can be viewed as being comprised of two parallel parts:

 Story of Complaint:

part I: Striking of rock (20:2-13)

part II: Story of snakes (21:4-9)


part I: "And he smote the rock...much water came out" (20:11)

part II: "And from there to Be'er (the well) ... and I shall give them water" (21:16)

 Sending of messengers:

part I: "And Moshe sent messengers... to the King of Edom" (20:14)

part II: "And Israel sent messengers to Sichon, king of the Emorites" (21:21)

 This repetition is not coincidental, and serves as the key to understanding the secret of the parasha.

As explained above, Moshe's sin in striking the rock lay in his placing himself at the center of the picture. Moshe continues in this fashion, and on his own initiative sends messengers to the King of Edom. He treats the nation as mindless sheep, and the nation, for their part, do not reveal any initiative or action. If this situation persists, the nation will not be able to enter the land and will have to prolong its journeys in the desert. The turning point comes in the war against the "Canaanites, the King of Arad": "And Israel made a vow..." (21:2). The nation finally understands that the matter is in their hands. In the story of the snakes, for the first time, the nation spontaneously responds: "And the nation came to Moshe and they said, 'We have sinned...'" (21:7). In the story of the striking of the rock there is no explicit expression by the people except for their complaint, and when they receive water they do not express any gratitude, like a baby which knows how to cry for what it wants but does not express thanks. In the case of the well, however, the nation responds with rejoicing: "Then Israel sang this song, 'Arise, O well, respond to it..." (21:17-18). (To this we may compare "Then Moshe and Bnei Yisrael sang this song..." [Shemot 15:1].)

 Likewise, it is Moshe who sends messengers to the king of Edom, and his mission fails. Later, 'the nation' sends messengers to the Emorites. Their king, like the king of Edom, refuses, but God arranges things in such a way that it is specifically the refusal which leads to the conquest of the eastern bank of the Jordan. Bnei Yisrael discover that the power lies in their hands, that they are responsible for their actions and that they control their own destiny. This understanding brings the nation to the long-awaited situation of being "in the plains of Moav, on the other side of the Jordan from Jericho." In effect, the parasha is a sort of conclusion to the period of the desert wanderings. This may be reason why this parasha is so full of rejoicing and praise to God (21:14-15, 21:17-20, 21:27-30). The parasha represents a sort of watershed in the history of Israel in the desert. The first part ends in failure, a failure of leadership. Therefore, in in this parasha we find the decree of death for Moshe and Aharon in the desert, and we read of the deaths of Aharon and Miriam. The second part concludes in resounding success - the success of a new style of leadership for the nation.

 Parashat Balak

Following the conquest of the land of the Emorites in ch21, a territory which included a portion of Moav, comes our parasha: "And Moav was very afraid of the nation for they were many..." (22:3), as a result of which events unfold as they do. This parasha is followed immediately by the sin of Ba'al Pe'or and the prostitution of the women of Moav - because "these caused Bnei Yisrael to rebel against God concerning Pe'or" (31:16). Nevertheless, parashat Balak stands apart in Sefer Bemidbar and is recognized as special in its own right. (Perhaps it is for this reason that Chazal had to stress that Moshe wrote the entire Torah - including the story of Bil'am [Bava Batra 14b]).

 [This shiur and the shiur mailed on Parashat Bemidbar were translated by Kaeren Fish. They originally appeared in Megadim 9.]


 Parashat Shelach

 Did Moshe Sin in the Meraglim Incident?

 by Rav Yaacov Medan


[Note: Rav Medan has analyzed the responsibility of Moshe for the Meraglim incident at length in Megadim 10 (pp. 21-39). This shiur presents a completely different solution to the problem.]  

In three different places, the Torah declares that Moshe and Aharon were punished because of their conduct during the Mei Meriva incident (hitting the rock): Bemidbar 20, 27, and Devarim 32. Rashi (Bemidbar 27:13, quoting the Sifre) explains that this repetition is a deliberate attempt to distinguish between the Jewish people, who were doomed to die in the desert and not enter the Land of Israel because of the sin of the spies, and Moshe and Aharon, who were guilty ONLY of the Meriva sin, but not of the Meraglim sin. In other words, the Torah is emphasizing that Moshe is blameless in the meraglim incident.

 However, the Torah in Devarim (1:37) seems to imply the opposite. "And God was angry with me as well because of you, saying, 'You too shall not come there.'" The context of Moshe's words here is clearly the sin of the spies.

 The Ramban, Ralbag, and others immediately explain that this is misleading - Moshe's fate is mentioned at this point in his oration only because of the mention of Yehoshua (who will bring the Jews to Israel), or incidentally to the other sins of the Jews. This seems to be somewhat forced in terms of peshat. Alternatively, the Malbim and the Ohr HaChayim offer different variants of the same theme - that Moshe was denied entry to the Land because of the meraglim incident, DESPITE the fact that he was personally blameless, based on his general responsibility for the fate of that generation as their leader. Once they were denied entry, it was inconceivable that he would enter without them.  

The only commentator that I know of who attributes culpability to Moshe in the meraglim incident and consequently connects his punishment to his role with the spies, is the Abrabenel. He claims that Moshe added various instructions to the spies beyond what God had commanded (compare the verses yourselves and find the additions), and these additional tasks are what led to the corruption of the initial mission. Although Moshe's intention was of course good, he was liable for changing God's instructions and thus was held responsible for the terrible results.

 I would like to suggest another solution to this problem. Moshe did not sin at all in sending the spies. His sin was in his REACTION when they returned and delivered their terrifying report to the Jews. The reaction of the Jews to this report was qualitatively worse than any previous rebellion. The demand to "turn around and go back to Egypt" (14:4) was unprecedented. Here we do not have merely murmuring about how wonderful it had been in Egypt, or complaints about the relative hardship of the desert. The Jews turn to each other and make an operative decision - we are going back!

 Returning to Egypt means reversing the giving of the Torah, abandoning the Ten Commandments, which open with the words, "I am HaShem your God who took you out of Egypt." Returning to Egypt implies asking forgiveness of Pharaoh for all the terrible things he and his people suffered in Egypt and at the sea. It means the cancellation of the conclusion of the Song of the Sea - "God shall rule forever and ever." This had never taken place since the Jews had left Egypt, and the danger of God's destroying the Jews had never been as imminent.

 At the time of sin of the golden calf, Moshe had not relied only on prayer. Immediately after succeeding in receiving a postponement in the punishment, he went down to the Jews, smashed the tablets, ground up the heifer, and displayed no personal fear before those who had slain Chur (who was killed trying to prevent the sin). Moshe purged the Jews of the guilty ones. No one dared to object in the face of his forceful determination. Only then did he return to God to beg for forgiveness. We have here a picture of true leadership, courageous struggle with the problems of the people, and definitive action to solve the problem.

 Moshe, facing the sin of the spies, appears as a totally different person, bereft of any signs of leadership (there is room in this short supplementary shiur to explain why). Moshe's reaction to the outrageous demand to return to Egypt was, "And Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces before the entire assembly of the congregation of the Jews" (14:5). This was not the required act of leadership. In the vacuum created by Moshe's paralysis, Calev and Yehoshua attempt to enter the breach, coming close to endangering themselves. But they are unable to supplant Moshe and Aharon, and the situation is about to completely deteriorate, saved only by the direct appearance of the presence of God. Now is the time, I believe, that Calev and Yehoshua assume the leadership that will eventually lead to their bringing the Jews into the Land, instead of Moshe and Aharon.

 Moshe is denied entry to the Land, not because of a particular transgression, but because he is no longer the leader who can accomplish the entry into the Land. It is not so much a matter of punishment as the natural consequence of his failure as a leader. The advantage of this explanation is that it explains the connection to the oft-repeated reference to Meriva as the cause of Moshe's exclusion from the Land. We are not explicitly told what was the sin of Moshe and Aharon at the waters of Meriva. (There are at least sixteen different explanations in the commentators!) For our purposes, we may follow the Ibn Ezra. On the verse, "Moshe and Aharon came to the entrance of the ohel mo'ed from before the congregation and fell on their faces" (20:6), the Ibn Ezra comments: "Moshe and Aharon came - as ones who flee." Compare this to the similar problem at Refidim, where the people complained of thirst, and Moshe remonstrates with them: "Why do you argue with me, why do test God?" (Shemot 20:6). There, Moshe struggled with the complainers, trying to return them to the proper path. Here, at the waters of Meriva, he is silent, falling on his face, actually fleeing, according to the Ibn Ezra, before his people. Waiting for God's answer is not true leadership. Moshe's fate is originally decreed at the time of the spies, as stated in Devarim 1, but he is given another chance 38 years later, at Meriva. When he failed a second time, his fate was sealed.

 The midrash supports our assertion that Moshe did not sin, neither regarding the spies nor at Meriva, and so was not worthy of punishment. The decree that he would not enter the Land was not a punishment for a sin, but a result of a failure of leadership. The actual decree was not that he would not enter the Land, but that he would not be the leader.

 "Moshe said to God: Master of the World, let Yehoshua take my crown, and I shall live. God said to him: Act with him as he has acted with you. Moshe immediately went to the house of Yehoshua... They went out, and Moshe walked on the left of Yehoshua... At that time, Moshe cried and said: Better a thousand deaths than one jealousy." (Devarim Rabba 9:19).

Yehoshua replaces Moshe as leader, and Moshe could have lived and entered the Land, had he been able to accept entering the Land as a follower of Yehoshua. This can be inferred from Devarim 3 and 31 - but my time is up.



The last part of this shiur can be found in our study on Parashat Pinchas.


This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!