Parshat Beha’alotcha reminds me of the scene in our home whenever we’re trying to get out for a trip. We want to beat the crowds, so we decide we’ll aim to get out at the crack of dawn- say, around 9 or so. We wake up at 6 to start getting the kids up, dressed, fed, and to gather snacks, diapers, wipes, drinks, flashlights in case of emergency. Finally, it’s 3 minutes to 9, and we’re all ready to go. But wait! Bathrooms! Everyone turns around, goes to the bathroom, we change the baby’s diaper, at least twice, and an hour later, we’re really, really ready to go. We have our bags on, our shoes on- wait! Forgot the sunscreen! Put down the bags, find the sunscreen, maybe have a drink and another bite to eat, check some emails in the meantime- by 11, we’re all good to go. But this time for real. We get out of the house, start down the stairs…and then, inevitably, some little person tugs on my pants to inform me they need the bathroom. Now.
So it is in our family, and so it is in Parshat Behaalotcha. The Torah explains the rules of the road – when the cloud goes up, we go, the cloud goes down, we stop, we’re about to head out- and suddenly the Torah interrupts with the commandment of the silver trumpets. We finish with the trumpets, and now we’ve really started moving, the camp is set up, everyone is in their places- but wait, we forgot to invite Yitro…
This story of hold-ups and false starts actually begins at the very opening of the book of Bamidbar. The book begins in the second year in the desert, on the first day of the second month, with the nation’s preparations for their great journey. The people are counted, the camp is organized, every tribe receives their place, including the outliers of the nation.
The preparations are progressing, the excitement is mounting, and then, in chapter 7, the Torah suddenly jumps backwards by a month, to the story of the completion of the Mishkan!
But when you look at what happens when the Jews actually do start their journey, you can understand the Torah’s reticence to begin. As long as we’re describing, in theory, how the journey will be, everything is absolutely perfect. But the minute the kids “get in the car”- the complaints begin. Four pesukim after the Torah finally says that we travelled, we’re already complaining in such a way as to draw down heavenly wrath and severe punishment.
In Chazal’s understanding, it doesn’t even take that long. In the initial movement to leave Har Sinai, in the very first breath, there’s already a problem. The Gemara in Masechet Shabbat (116) suggests that the placement of the paragraph describing the travel of the ark is intended to break up between two tragedies. The second tragedy is clear- the complaints and subsequent punishment at Tav’era. What is the first tragedy? The flight from Har Sinai “as a child flees school.” The Jewish people apparently experienced what many children are feeling during these summer days- enough! No more teachers, no more books! No more laws, no more commandments! We’ve been sitting in class since Parshat Mishpatim, we’ve sat and learned all the laws of korbanot, of holidays, of holiness… Their experience of Har Sinai has been one of compulsion, of the mountain hanging over their heads, forcing them to accept the Torah’s laws. As soon as they are released, the second the “bell rings”, the Jewish people are out of there.
R’Aryeh Leib HaKohen suggests that this experience of compulsion is also what underlies the people’s complaints about the manna, the first explicit complaint of our parsha. But while the compulsion of Har Sinai was borne of fear- thunder and lightning, fire and smoke, the manna, being a lofty, utterly spiritual food, compelled the people to love God. The Jewish people were so completely dependent on God that they had no choice but to love him, and so they “desired to accept the Torah out of their own desire and will, for a person does not desire a love which is forced upon him.”
A terrific chasm exists between God’s perfect plans for a perfect trip, “by God’s mouth they travelled and by God’s mouth they encamped”, in which everything is already thought of and taken care of, in which the people have but to believe, trust, and enjoy the ride, and the people’s need for that messy thing called free choice, their need to have their own say and their own voice. This conflict can be seen as the root of crisis after crisis in the book of Bamidbar. Every parent, teacher, and leader can probably identify with the experience of working endlessly to put together the perfect plan, only to have it destroyed by children, students, or colleagues who don’t buy in because they weren’t given ownership over the planning.
In this light, God’s first positive response to the people’s complaints, which seems strange and disjunct at first reading, takes on new significance. The people complain that they are sick of the manna, and Moshe complains that he’s sick of the people, so God instructs Moshe to take 70 elders and to share with them the load of communal leadership. God is widening his base of support, bringing people who are already in key positions of influence and leadership in the community into partnership with him.
But perhaps it’s even deeper than that. Who are these 70 elders? We hear almost nothing about who they need to be, and what they need to do. Rashi, following the Sifri, fills in the gap. These 70 elders are the same men who acted as the officers, shotrim, in Egypt. What’s so unique about them? Why are they uniquely qualified for this task?
The answer lies back in that mysterious jump back in time that we noted earlier. Why did the Torah to see fit, at the peak of the recounting of the preparations for travel, to offer the 90 pasuk long broken-record accounting of the offerings of the tribal princes? This is a section of the Torah which would raise eyebrows even if it was placed properly. Twelve times, the identical offering is described, the only difference apparent being the name of the prince who offers it. Perhaps these two puzzling features explain each other. If the Torah goes out of its way to list each offering, then apparently, each prince succeeded in bringing the identical offering in a completely unique way. What these princes are teaching us is that, even if one is doing the exact same thing as his fellow, that doesn’t have to negate a person’s individuality. Although all the princes seemed to bind themselves to the identical recipe, they still found the way within that to express their own unique voice and free choice. And who were these princes, who taught us this lesson? Rashi says- these were the officers in Egypt. These officers, who knew how to express their individuality without needing to be different, are exactly the leaders that the Jewish people need to teach them how to maintain their individual voice even while travelling exactly according to the word of God. It’s a lesson they will ultimately fail to impart, as we will see in next week’s Parsha. It’s a lesson we’re all still trying very hard to learn.