A common misconception is that there are five books in the Torah: Bereishit, Shemot, Vayikra, Bemidbar, and Devarim. Actually, there are seven. Two verses in the portion of Beha’alotecha [Bemidbar 10:35-36] beginning with the words “When the Ark would set out (Vaye’hi Binso’a)”, are separated via special “signs”, an upside-down letter nun. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [115b] teaches that these verses are considered one complete, 85-letter, Book of the Torah. This means that the Book of Bemidbar actually consists of three books: “Bemidbar Part I”, “Vaye’hi Binso’a”, and “Bemidbar Part II”.
Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, writes that the verses in Vaye’hi Binso’a actually belong elsewhere in the Torah and that they were shoehorned into their current location to serve as a buffer between two “narratives of punishment (pur’anut)”. Oddly, Rashi does not identify these two narratives. That said, identifying the second narrative is trivial. The next episode after Vaye’hi Binso’a begins with the words [Bemidbar 11:1] “The People began complaining bitterly before G-d”. G-d is angered by their behaviour and He sends a fire that “ravages the camp”. A more difficult conundrum is identifying the narrative of punishment that precedes Vaye’hi Binso’a. Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel one century after Rashi, suggests that the first narrative is located in the verses that immediately precede Vaye’hi Binso’a [Bemidbar 10:33]: “They marched from the Mountain of G-d a distance of three days.” For nearly one full year, the Jewish People camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, where they had received the Torah and where they continued to study it. And yet, when the time came to depart, the Jewish People left “like children running out of school”.
They had had enough of Mount Sinai and the Torah. They were afraid that G-d might decide to give them a few more commandments. They were only too happy to leave the place behind them. The Ramban’s explanation is problematic. First and foremost, the decision to leave Mount Sinai was G-d’s. G-d chose where the Jewish People would camp via a kind of Divine Waze consisting of a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire. When the pillar of cloud left Mount Sinai, the Jewish People had no other recourse but to follow. Another problem with the Ramban’s explanation is that the verse describing the departure from Mount Sinai is entirely redundant. The Jewish People had already left Sinai nearly forty verses earlier [Bemidbar 10:11-12]: “In the second year on the twentieth day of the month, the cloud lifted… and the Israelites set out on their journeys from the wilderness of Sinai.” The Torah describes in great depth precisely how the Jewish People travelled: How each tribe set out led by its prince, how the Tabernacle (Mishkan) was disassembled, how it travelled in the middle of the pack, and how it was reassembled before the Jewish People arrived at their next stop. If the Jewish People had already left Mount Sinai, why must the Torah remind us that “they marched from the Mountain of G-d”?
In this lesson, we propose an alternate identification of Rashi’s first “narrative of punishment” that will simultaneously address the apparent redundancy of the verses immediately preceding Vaye’hi Binso’a. Before we continue, we require some additional background. Early in the Book of Bemidbar [2:1-32], the Torah describes the structure of the camp of the Jewish People in the Sinai Desert. The camp was shaped like a square: Three tribes camped on the north side of the square, three on the east side, three on the south side, and three on the west side. The Mishkan and its attending Levites camped in the centre of the square. The Jerusalem Talmud in Tractate Eiruvin [38b in the Schottenstein Edition] brings a disagreement as to how the camp travelled. One opinion suggests that they travelled the same way they camped, side by side in a square.
A second opinion asserts that they travelled single file in a line. Each opinion brings proofs from scripture to support his hypothesis. The “Square Hypothesis” is supported by the verse [Bemidbar 2:16] “Just as they camped, so they would travel”. The “Line Hypothesis” is supported by a verse describing the journey from Mount Sinai [Bemidbar 10:25]: “At the rear guard travelled the Tribe of Dan, the gatherer (me’assef) for all the camp”. The Talmud explains that the Tribe of Dan “gathered up” the camp. They were last in line. Any luggage lost during travel was picked up by the Tribe of Dan. Any stragglers who could not keep up with their own tribe would walk along with the Tribe of Dan. The fact that a single tribe, and not three tribes, brought up the rear flank meant that the tribes walked in single file. Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto, known as Shadal, who lived in Italy in the nineteenth century, brings a similar proof for the “Line Hypothesis”: The Torah [Bemidbar 10:1] describes how the Tribe of Yehuda travelled “first”. If the Jewish People were travelling in a square, then three tribes, and not one, should have led the pack.
Moving in a square and moving in a line both have logistical advantages and disadvantages. Moving in a line takes far longer than moving in a square. At the beginning of a march, each person in the camp had to “fall in” to the line and as they reached the new campsite, each person had to reassume his position in the square. As there were approximately three million Israelites in the camp, the time required to go from square to line and back to square would have been considerable. On the other hand, moving as one coordinated square would require considerably more cooperative communication than moving in a straight line, where each person simply “follows the leader”. There are also topographical considerations: the mountainous terrain of the Sinai Desert would have made moving side by side considerably more difficult than moving single file between mountains and through dry river beds.
With this background, let us revisit the verses immediately preceding Vaye’hi Binso’a: “They marched… by way (derech) of three days.” The verse does not say “they marched for three days”. I suggest that the Torah is revealing that while the trip took three days, the actual marching – getting from Point A to Point B – took significantly less time. Extra time was required for the camp to reorganize from square to line and back to square. This is a third proof for the “Line Hypothesis” and I suggest this is Rashi’s first “narrative of punishment”. A story from last week’s war against the Hamas in Gaza, “Operation Guardian of the Walls”, can elucidate. After ten days of fighting, a cease-fire with the Hamas was declared and set to begin Thursday night at 2:00 a.m. The IDF was concerned that Hamas would launch a large salvo of rockets on Tel Aviv immediately before the cease-fire went into effect. To this end, the IDF sent large numbers of heavily armed fighter jets flying over Gaza, waiting to respond to a Hamas salvo with massive amounts of explosive ordnance of their own. But instead of firing on Tel Aviv, Hamas chose to fire their rockets on small Israeli towns near the Gazan border (otef) and the fighter jets returned to base along with their ordnance. Apparently, a rocket landing in Sederot is acceptable while a rocket landing in Tel Aviv is not.
“Gatherer” is not a derogatory term. When traveling in a line, someone will necessarily reach the destination first while someone else will get there last. It is not that the Tribe of Dan was of a lower status than the Tribe of Judah. They just happened to be located at the end of the line. They just happened to be the gatherers. It was only natural that they would pick up the flotsam and jetsam of the other tribes. It was only natural that they would attract stragglers. Similarly, in any country, certain people will live closer to the border than others. They’re not less important than the people in Tel Aviv. They just happen to be easier to hit with rockets fired from Gaza. One would expect they that would have become used to it already.
Had the Jewish People chosen to travel side by side, had they chosen to take the more difficult path, there would have been no leaders and no gatherers. But they chose the easy way – they chose to travel in a line. They chose to follow, not to lead. All of them were equal but some were more equal than others. Last week, our leaders chose to recreate this “narrative of punishment”. All Israelis were under fire but some were more under fire than others. The fact that this was officially sanctioned is a mar k of shame.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Iris bat Chana.
 While some of the commentators show how scripture hints that the Jewish People were happy to leave Mount Sinai, I find their suggestions somewhat forced.