Beha'alotecha: On the Way

[Tal Chermon]


The Book of Bemidbar is the book of transitions - the “on the way” book. As the People of Israel journey to the Promised Land, they encounter many dangers and must undergo many tests. In the first Parshiyot of Bemidbar, the Torah teaches us how they prepare for their journey: Each tribe is arranged in military fashion in its own specified area. In the heart of the encampment stands the Mishkan, where the Divine Presence rests. The question of those who, for one reason or another, are physically or spiritually estranged from the Camp (the physically impure, the thief, the Sotah, the Nazir) is dealt with in Parashat Naso. The Birkat Cohanim is received, the Mishkan is dedicated, and we arrive at Parashat Beha’alotcha.

We begin with man’s physical and spiritual work in this world as represented in the spiritual world of the Mishkan: Lighting the Menorah symbolizes enlightenment. The light kindled in the Mishkan brings a blessing to all cultural achievements world-wide. The Lechem Ha-Panim, on the other hand, symbolizes man’s economic achievements. “To become wise - go south, for the Menorah stands in the southern area of the Mishkan. To become rich - go north, for the Shulchan Lechem Panim is in the North” (Baba Batra 25b).

Care of the Mishkan and its utensils is entrusted to the Levi’im. This week’s Parashah teach us more about their work. It then goes on to the unique sacrifice brought by each Jew - the Korban Pesach.

The Nation is now ready to travel, led by the Pillar of Cloud in the daytime and the Pillar of Fire at night. Yitro, Moshe’s Midianite father-in-law, is invited to become a part of the Jewish People and to embark on the journey together with the whole Nation.

“A book of its own” is how our Sages designate the two short verses separating the above preparations from the onset of the actual journey. “And it came to pass, when the Aron set forth” (Bemidbar10:35-36): This Parashah teaches that the Divine Presence accompanies us “on the way.” The Aron contains the Torah through which the Master of the Universe reveals Himself to us, as the Gemara tells, “I gave myself in the written words” (Shabbat 105a). It is as if G-d Himself were in the Torah. The Aron containing the Torah accompanies us everywhere, whether we succeed or fail: “He who dwells in their midst in all their impurity”- “Even when they are impure, the Divine Presence remains in their midst” (Yoma 56b). This short passage is framed on both sides by an upside-down letter “Nun”. Nun is the letter of “Nefilah” - of falling and failing, and for that reason was left out of the “Ashrei” (Shabbat 116. Berachot 4b). Nevertheless, the Master of the World does not desert us. He is with us in our exile (Megilla 29a). |This concept deserves a ‘book of its own.’

No sooner do we start out on the way than troubles begin. First, “and the People were as if complaining; it displeased Hashem” (Bemidbar.11:1). Then they “desired a desire” (ibid. 4), followed by the Lashon Hara against Moshe, the sins of the spies, Korach, and so on - all internal crises. These are followed by enemies from without - Edom, Sichon, Balak and Bil’am. The way is fraught with danger and time after time we fall.

After the Six Day War, a conference of Muslim academics was held in the El-Azhar University near Cairo on the theological implications of the State of Israel. They agreed unanimously that the State must be wiped out. As to its Jewish population, there were two opinions. One was that they could be permitted to remain if they were faithful to the Palestinian State. The other held that they were incorrigible and must be totally eradicated. One professor wrote an article in which he attempted to prove the intrinsic corruption of the Jewish Nation as reflected in the ‘Old Testament’ itself, by the sins we committed in the desert.

There is no attempt here to hide our imperfections. However, mistakes are an inherently human characteristic. “There is no one so righteous on earth who does only good and never sins.” We stumbled, got up, and resumed our work. “Seven times does a righteous man fall, and he rises” (Kohelet 24:16). Through these failures, we learn to correct and perfect ourselves.

There are things that can only be comprehended through trial and failure. The trial of “Kivrot HaTa’ava” (the graves of desire) teaches us how to relate to materialism. Through the crisis with Miriam and Aharon we come to understand the vast difference between Moshe Rabbenu and all other prophets. Of course, it is unnecessary to fail purposely, there are sufficient opportunities without that. When we do fail, however, we must use that experience as a springboard for spiritual elevation. “No person can really comprehend the Torah’s teachings unless he has failed first” (Gittin 43a). Failure can actually help us reach perfection.