Parashat Behaalotcha: At God’s Command They Shall Travel
God tests the desert generation in a way that underscores the importance of commitment and the power of divine truth – travelling and camping at His command.
Rabbi Nechemia Krakover, Principal of Neveh Channah High School, Named in Memory of Anna Ehrman
Can any of us say we’ve never faced a tough choice or wondered why Hashem couldn’t just send us a message with instructions? Couldn’t an angel or a prophet just beam down and guide us?
This doesn’t happen, of course, and we must make our decisions on our own. What would happen, though, if this were possible? Imagine that every time you needed to make a choice, whenever you felt conflicted, the decision were to instantly descend from Heaven. A bat kol, a heavenly voice, would go out and tell us what to do. What would our world look like? Are we really prepared to live in such a reality?
It would be a world without any independent decision-making, creativity, mistakes or failures. Everything would be in accordance with the law, and with the truth. This would be a reality prone to change at any given moment. A world over which people have no control. Living in this kind of world might seem easy, but in practice, it would be rather challenging. This is precisely the world that the Israelites lived in as they sojourned through the desert.
Within a series of verses, our Parasha describes how the Israelites trudged through the desert, and the expression tying all of these verses together is “At a command of Hashem the Israelites broke camp, and at a command of the Hashem they made camp”. The pillars of clouds and the pillars of fire guided the people. Within moments, they would set out, and within moments, they would set up camp. At times, they would travel for days at a time, pausing only briefly, while at other times, they would spend several months encamped somewhere. Imagine a family walking for several days until they finally stop, start unpacking their belongings… and suddenly resume walking. At their next stop, they don’t unpack. Instead, they wait until they begin travelling again, but this time, it is a long wait. They begin unpacking, but before they know it, the set out once more on their journey.
This aptly illustrates the verse in the Book of Deuteronomy: “… that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not.” Living this way for forty years was one of the hardest trials a human being could endure. It meant complete obedience, with no control over anything, and with no room for error or change. Apparently, a generation that can withstand this trial is indeed a dor de’ah – a purely spiritual generation. It is very challenging to be able to stand on our own two feet and remain strong and stable. Which of us would rise to this type of challenge?
Hashem has the Israelites face this trial in order to underscore the importance of commitment and the power of divine truth – a reality without compromise or decision-making. At its center stands the Divine attribute of absolute judgement, according to which people do what is right, regardless of how complex reality is. This is the commitment that each of us is truly required to adhere to – to travel and camp at the command of Hashem.
What, then, do we learn from this? Today, we live in a completely different world, one where we seem to be in control. Are we truly making the best of this world? Are we managing to channel our decisions toward the truth we are expected to uphold? What is the gap between how we conduct ourselves and how we would conduct ourselves, if we were to act at the command of Hashem?
The desert generation was an anomaly, but it is certainly a generation beckoning us with a call to action to recalibrate our decisions – and to choose to be committed.
At Hashem’s command we shall camp, and at Hashem’s command we shall travel.