The Complete Assembly
Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9 )
Rashi holds his own as the Ramban levels a criticism against his p'shat.
"The Children of Israel, the entire assembly, came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month and the People remained there in Kadesh and Miriam died there; and she was buried there."
The entire assembly - RASHI: The complete assembly. For those who were to die in the wilderness had already died and these were set aside for life.
Can you see the basis for this interpretation? What's bothering Rashi?
WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI?
An Answer: There are superfluous words here. It says "And the Children of Israel, the entire assembly, came to the wilderness of Zin," etc. If it already says "the Children of Israel," why the need for the additional words, "the entire assembly"? The term "Children of Israel" is an inclusive one and includes the entire assembly. Why then the need to mention this again?
How does Rashi's comment deal with this superfluity?
An Answer: Rashi tells us that these words are not redundant. They tell us that the Children of Israel comprised a complete assembly, i.e. they were all destined to enter the Land of Israel, because those who were to die in the wilderness had already died. Those now living formed a complete, indivisible group, one that would not be decimated even by natural death. This was an assembly that would remain in its entirety until its entrance to the Land of Israel.
THE RAMBAN DISAGREES WITH RASHI
The Ramban disagrees with Rashi's interpretation of these words and sees their meaning differently. He says:
"The correct interpretation, in my opinion, is that it is a literary convention to mention 'the entire assembly' whenever the Torah describes a quarrel or complaint."
The Ramban then lists several examples of verses where the term "the entire assembly" is used and we will see that it always occurs in the context of a quarrel with God or Moses. Let us look at them:
"And they journeyed from Eilim and the entire assembly of the Children of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin ... and they complained." (Exodus 16:1)
"And the entire assembly of the Children of Israel traveled from the wilderness of Sin on their journeys according to the word of Hashem and they encamped in Refidim and there was no water for the drinking of the people. And the people quarreled with Moses." (Exodus 17:1)
"And the entire assembly raised their voice and complained to Moses and Aaron, all the Children of Israel." (Numbers 14:1)
"And the entire assembly of the Children of Israel complained on the morrow against Moses and Aaron." (Numbers 17:6)
Not only do all these verses relate to a quarrel, but none of them is referring to the entire assembly that would enter the Land of Israel. Two verses are from the book of Exodus, which certainly took place before the sin of the Spies and consequently before the decree that the generation would die in the wilderness and not enter the Land of Israel. So, those people did not enter the Land. The third verse describes an event that occurred immediately before the sin of the Spies is described, so this also cannot refer to the entire assembly that entered Israel, because after the Spies' sin they would be condemned to die in the wilderness. The fourth verse comes from the story of Korach, which happened before Korach's sinners were punished by various forms of death. So this too cannot refer to the entire assembly who entered the Land of Israel.
The Ramban has chosen his verses wisely. They clearly seem to prove his point, that the term "entire assembly" does not necessarily refer to those who entered Israel, as Rashi says; rather, it is a term used when a complaint is lodged against Hashem or His servant, Moses.
Can you defend Rashi's interpretation?
Hint: Look carefully at the wording in our verse as compared to the other verses.
IN DEFENSE OF RASHI
An Answer: To understand Rashi we must pay close attention to the order of the words. Rashi's "dibbur hamatchil" (the "introductory comment") is "the entire assembly." These words come after the inclusive words "the Children of Israel." The words "the entire assembly" are therefore, redundant, since the words "the Children of Israel" already include everyone. It is this redundancy that Rashi is commenting on. In three of the Ramban's verses we do not have this redundancy. In three of the four verses we have the term "all the assembly of the Children of Israel."
That term is different from the one in our verse, "The Children of Israel, the entire assembly" - in a significant respect. "The entire assembly of the Children of Israel" is one, connected phrase. Our verse, on the other hand, contains two separate titles for the people: "The Children of Israel" and "the entire assembly."
The Ramban's third verse above is constructed differently. Here we have two separate terms: first "the entire assembly," then "the Children of Israel." In this case the less inclusive term – "the entire assembly" - is first, and the more inclusive term – "the Children of Israel" - last, and thus there is no redundancy. It is a normal and reasonable literary style to proceed from the least inclusive to the more inclusive term.
Our verse, on the other hand, is the only verse that places the more inclusive term, "the Children of Israel," first and the less inclusive term, "the entire assembly," second. This is what Rashi was sensitive to and why he commented here and not on these other verses.
In Summary: Rashi's comment withstands the Ramban's near-fatal attack. Rashi's keen ear and sensitive eye for the Biblical phrase should never be underestimated.