Between Behaalotcha and Shelach

Parashat Behaalotcha ends with the story of Miriam’s punishment. Why is it followed with the story of the Spies?

I think a hint can be found in the second to last verse of Behaalotcha. After Miriam is punished with tzaraat (biblical “leprosy”), the Torah reports:

“For seven days, Miriam remained quarantined outside the camp, and the people did not move on until Miriam was readmitted.” (Bamidbar 12:15)

Earlier in Behaalotcha (Bamidbar 9:15-23) we read that during their time in the desert, the people moved or stayed according to God’s command, via the cloud. When the cloud was present in the camp, they remained in place, but when the cloud lifted, they journeyed on. What happened to the cloud during Miriam’s quarantine?

This is subject to disagreement among the commentaries. The Baalei Tosafot in Daat Zekenim on Bamidbar 12:15 say that the cloud did not lift during this period, and so they stayed in place. But Seforno on the same verse writes that the cloud had lifted, and yet the people did not begin their journey. Between the two approaches, the opinion of Seforno seems closer to me to the intent of the verse, since it points out that the “people did not move.” It was their decision, not an instruction from God via the cloud.

This decision may have been praiseworthy – as Rashi notes, it was done out of respect for Miriam. But it represented a dangerous precedent. The people were now taking their itinerary into their own hands. Would they still follow God’s wishes when they did so?

And this leads us into the opening of Parashat Shlach. Based on the different accounts of the story of the Spies in Bamidbar and Devarim, Rashi comments on the opening words of Shelach “Send out men for yourself” (Bamidbar 13:2)

“According to your own judgement: I do not command you, but if you wish to do so send them.”

From here it would seem that God is already impatient with Moshe and the people. God does command Moshe to send the spies, but it is part of a test. That test is referenced in a midrash that Rashi also quotes in his commentary on Bamidbar 13:2. This midrash (Tanchuma Shelach 5) explains the juxtaposition of the story of Miriam with the story of the Spies by saying that the people should have learned the lesson from Miriam’s punishment, and avoided the evil speech that was their downfall in the episode of the Spies.

This might seem like a different lesson from what we’ve discussed about the decision not to move despite the cloud departing. However, in both the story of Miriam and the story of the Spies, the “evil speech” was not mere gossip. In both cases it was an attempt to challenge the legitimacy of decisions made by a higher power. Whether it was Moshe’s role as a unique prophet, or the plan to enter the land of Israel, the opposition came in the form of “evil speech.”

Throughout the book of Bamidbar, as we’ve noted, the people take more and more initiative, and bear the consequences of their choices. Sometimes it may be commendable, like waiting for Miriam. Other times it led to disaster like the generation of the Spies. Perhaps had the people remained passive, God would have directed them to enter the land with no need for Spies – they simply would have followed the cloud. But they chose a different path, and the path they took would be their own.

About the Author
David Curwin is a writer living in Efrat. He has been writing about the origin of Hebrew words and phrases, and their connection to other languages, on his website since 2006. He has also published widely on topics relating to Bible and Jewish philosophy.
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