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Beha'alosecha 5782: Campaign to Complain

Be'halot'cha (Numbers 8-12 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! Welcome to summer and the time of year that parents dread – the end of the school year. Of course, the people most excited to be released from the confining walls of the classroom are the teachers. No teacher has ever said, “What, is today the last day of school?”

That reminds me of the time when a friend of mine grumbled that, on the second day of school, his child’s teacher called to complain about his son’s misbehavior. He said, “I just had him for two months and I never called her even once when he misbehaved!”

Still, not everyone leaves school rejoicing; young ladies often spend hours on tearful goodbyes, promising their friends that they will stay in touch over the next two interminable months. By contrast, the unbridled joy of an adolescent boy throwing his books and papers in the air while tearing out of school on the last day is an image that is easy to envision. At least it is easy for me to visualize because I was that kid; I spent my entire childhood absolutely abhorring going to school. Of course, the Almighty got the last laugh as I now run schools on three different campuses and it seems like I never get to leave.

Remarkably, it is amazing to see that this instinct is part of the human condition and that in thousands of years nothing has changed. There is an interesting passage in the Talmud (Shabbos 116a) that discusses some of the poor behavior and ungrateful attitude of the Jewish nation during their forty years in the desert.

The Talmud points out that some of the incidents of their transgressions against the Almighty actually happened successively, but the Torah separated the stories so as not to cast the Jewish people in too harsh a light. The example the Talmud gives is in this week’s Torah portion.

In this week's Torah reading we find, “And the nation marched from the Mountain of God a distance of a three-day journey” (Numbers 10:33).

At that point the Torah interrupts the narrative with, “When the Holy Ark went forth Moses said; ‘Arise O’ God and scatter your enemies! Let your enemies flee before you!’ When it came to rest, he said, ‘Return O’ God to the myriads of Israel’s thousands’” (Ibid. 10:35-36).

Then the Torah continues with another incident of misbehavior, “And the people began to complain, (speaking) evil in the ears of God [...]” (Numbers 11:1).

Our sages describe the first transgression of the Jewish people as their attitude when they left Mount Sinai. The great medieval commentator Nachmanides quotes an ancient Midrash that describes the hurried departure of the Jewish nation from Mount Sinai: “Like a child running away from school saying; ‘We need to leave NOW before we receive more commandments.’”

The sages are referring to the relief following the removal of responsibility that a child feels when he hears that final school bell on the last day of school. He doesn’t simply leave; he literally “runs away” from school, trying to unburden himself.

The famous Biblical commentator known as Rashi describes (ad loc) the second incident. He says that the Hebrew word “misoninim” means “those who seek a pretext to complain” – meaning the Jewish people were looking for a way to distance themselves from the Almighty. But what was their pretext?

Rashi explains that they were complaining about their arduous journey saying, “We have traveled three days without a respite!”

But, as Rashi points out, this was a terribly inaccurate accusation. In actuality, they had miraculously completed a three-day journey in a single day because the Almighty intended to bring them into Israel as quickly as possible. (This was prior to their NEXT transgression, which was sending the spies into Israel and believing their disparagement of the land – a transgression that caused them to be punished with forty years of wandering in the desert.)

But this begs the question, if they had miraculously completed a three-day journey in one day, as our sages teach us, then why were they complaining?

As a rabbi, I am occasionally called upon to help resolve marital issues, family disputes, and disagreements between business partners. Through many years of trying to negotiate these types of disputes I have noticed a fascinating phenomenon.

Most fights that people engage in, especially when it comes to family issues, have little or nothing to do with the stated reason for the dispute. Nearly all interpersonal problems stem from issues of control. The warring parties camouflage their fight to be in control by choosing battlegrounds that seem like credible disputes; political hot button issues, religious observance, the spouse’s family, their children’s education or discipline, and other seemingly “righteous” arguments.

In reality, they are merely looking for a pretext to express their displeasure with or resentment of the other person, and they will use any excuse to portray it as a legitimate disagreement. After all, they can’t just come to a rabbi and say, “I can’t stand this person!” (Often they can’t even admit that to themselves.)

Similarly, anyone who even remotely follows politics will recognize that the real disagreements between Democrats and Republicans has very little to do with the hot button issues of abortion, COVID protocols, gun control, voting rights, or any other contemporary issue. These disagreements are primarily vehicles used to express each party’s animosity and desire for control. Ultimately, like all petty self-centered arguments, nobody wins and, in this case, our country suffers.

One of my readers wrote in last week, “We have lots of Democrats in congress and we have a lot of Republicans in congress. We just don’t have enough Americans in congress.”

In the Torah, we find the quintessential example of this to be Korach – a first cousin to Moses and Aaron. Korach was a first rate Torah scholar and was able to channel his resentment into sophisticated and seemingly righteous arguments about Torah law with Moses and Aaron.

In fact, Korach was so brilliant and persuasive that he was able to convince many people to side with him. But in reality he was just jealous that he had been passed over as a leader; in his mind he was overlooked for the position of head of his tribe and passed over for the position of High Priest. His Torah law arguments were merely a pretext to pick a fight. This is why the sages characterize his disagreement with Moses and Aaron as a dispute that was not for the sake of heaven (Ethics of our Fathers 5:17).

This also explains what Rashi means when he describes the Jewish people as “looking for a pretext to complain because they were looking to distance themselves from the Almighty.”

Their real issue had nothing to do with the journey; for we know that a three-day journey only took one day. This, of course, was a great kindness from the Almighty. The real issue was that the Jewish people were resentful of their obligation to the Almighty (“Let’s get out of here before he gives us more commandments”).

Their complaints were merely a pretext to throw off the yoke of responsibility with which they felt burdened. Thus, they used the “three-day journey” as an excuse for a fight when it was only a symptom of the real issue – their resentment of being told what to do and their desire for control.

Torah Portion of the Week

Beha'alosecha, Numbers 8:1 - 12:16

Aaron is commanded in the lighting of the Menorah, the Levites purify themselves for service in the Tabernacle (they trained from age 25-30 and served from age 30-50). The first Passover is celebrated since leaving Egypt. The Almighty instructs the Jewish people to journey into the desert whenever the ever-present cloud lifts from above the Tabernacle and to camp where it rests. Moses is instructed to make two silver trumpets to be sounded before battle or to proclaim a yom tov (a holiday).

The people journey to the wilderness of Paran, during which time they rebelled twice against the Almighty’s leadership. The second time they complain about the boring taste of the maneh and the lack of meat in the desert. The Almighty sends a massive quantity of quail and those who rebelled died.

Moses asks his father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro) to travel with them in the desert, but Yitro returns to Midian.

Miriam, Moses’ sister, speaks lashon hora (defaming words) about Moses. She is struck with tzora’as (the mystical skin disease which indicated that a person spoke improperly about another person) and is exiled from the camp for one week.

Candle Lighting Times

Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

Dedicated in Loving Memory of

Bernard Finkelberg and Alan Fields

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