Parshat Behaalotcha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)
After a number of verses relating how the Israelite camp will travel throughout its desert journey, the big day finally arrives when the People of Israel sets out for the Land of Israel. This historic date was the 20th of Iyyar, in the second year after the nation left Egypt, a journey that was supposed to have lasted for only a number of days, but which turned into a forty-year ordeal.
What went wrong? The first problem is described as follows in our weekly portion, Parshat Be’ha’alot’cha:
The people were like “mit’onenim”, evil in the ears of the Lord. (Bamidbar / Numbers 11:1)
The simple definition of the word “mit’onenim” is “complain”. At this point, the text does not specify what the people were complaining about, and many commentators have tried to figure out what was bothering them. Some suggest that these complaints stemmed from the nation’s desire to worship the foreign deities they were used to worshipping in Egypt, a desire that went unfulfilled because of the Torah’s stern prohibitions against idol worship.
However, nothing in this verse explicitly confirms this assertion. Besides, this episode occurs almost an entire year after the giving of the Torah and the sin of the golden calf. Why wouldn’t they have remembered to complain earlier about the prohibition on bowing down to idols?
Perhaps, instead, the people of Israel were complaining because they were now required to set out on their journey. After all, Mount Sinai was quite close to inhabited areas. After leaving Mount Sinai and beginning their trek in the desert, the Israelites harbored growing concerns over the hardships they would encounter on the way, and the discomfort of having to trudge under the blazing desert sun. After spending nearly an entire year in one place, no one wanted to forego their temporary comforts and set out on a long and intimidating journey.
Other rabbis explain that the word “mit’onenim” stems from the word “aninut” – sorrow and mourning – and the text is simply telling us that the nation was dejected and suffering, for reasons unknown to us.
Perhaps one letter can provide an entirely new understanding of this story. The Torah uses the words “kemit’onenim” [roughly translated to: seeking to complain], and not simply “mit’onenim” [complaining]. Had the Torah wished to describe the people’s complaints, it could have ostensibly stated what the people were complaining about, as it does on countless other occasions. However, the Torah wants to portray this incident in a different light.
The Israelites truly had nothing to complain about. Relative to the standards of their time, they had it quite good. A well accompanied them wherever they went. Their food, the manna, was provided to them, day after day. The nation was organized into tribes, and at the heart of the camp stood an exquisite Mishkan. They were guided by a pillar of fire at night, and by a pillar of clouds in the daytime, and these two had also defended them from any adversaries. So, what was so bad? What was missing?
We are only human, and we find it easier to complain about what we don’t have than to rejoice in what we do have. It is easier to express our pain and suffering than to graciously welcome all of the good things we have in our lives. We take these good things for granted, and enjoy complaining about the bad.
This is why the verse uses the word “kemit’onenim”. It was “as if” we were complaining, and there’s no point in trying to identify an underlying issue, because there wasn’t any good reason to complain.
Rashi explains that “They were seeking a pretext for turning away from the Omnipresent”. People seek pretexts for complaints in order to justify improper behavior or turning away from God, but there are no justifications for these desires. The Torah doesn’t deny that there is a time for criticizing and correcting, but we must always ask ourselves if we are voicing constructive criticism, or if we are simply complaining for the sake of complaining.
The complaints of the Israelites as they began their desert journey will hopefully compel us to address how we complain about various aspects of our lives. The bottom line is that we should not make complaining a way of life.
[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
Would you like to receive Rabbi Stav’s weekly Dvar Torah and updates from OTS direct to your inbox?