Naomi Graetz

Moed Bet and Conflagration: Parshat Behaalotcha

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In September,1968, my husband and I moved to Jerusalem from Alonei Yitzchak. A casual meeting with someone I had studied English Literature in 1965 resulted in a job offer at the Mechina of the Hebrew University. I began teaching in the temporary buildings of the Italian Salesian Sisters’ convent in the Musrara neighborhood. A year later, the entire Pre-Academic Center moved up to Mount Scopus. We were true pioneers: one of the first units to occupy the new Campus which was in the process of being rebuilt. Each day we went to the new campus, there was a different route, through the old city—which in those days was safe and our car pool took bets as to what road we would take to work. Most of the students studying in the Convent buildings had served in the army during the Six Day War in June 1967 and had missed their exams. They were now catching up. When the time came for their final exams, I discovered to my dismay, that students who had failed were entitled to what was now being called Moed Bet—a second chance to pass. Since I had taught at Rockland Community College in NY, I was stunned to hear about this. I had grown up in the US and if you failed, you had to take the course all over again. But in Israel, you were given a second chance if you were a soldier.

Over the 35 years of my teaching, first at the Hebrew University and then at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, I saw Moed Bet evolve into Moed Gimmel. And it was no longer just for soldiers, but also for anyone who was sick, pregnant, getting married, giving birth, or just for someone who had simply failed the final exam. This was a nightmare for those of us who taught. We could not go on vacation until all the students had used up whatever excuses they had. And it was not only those who failed. There were those who wanted to improve their grades. And then if the second grade was worse than the first, they would argue with us, saying that we had to count the first, the higher grade. Over the years, more and more students took advantage of this.

After retiring in 2009 after a forty year career, I sympathized more with this idea when viewing it from the outside. And this year, in the wake of the war, when the whole country has been traumatized, I’ve actually been encouraging students to take advantage of the system and all the benefits that they are being given by the university to make it possible for them to get through the year and pass and even graduate. Of course, there will be a price in the future—the medical student who wasn’t in the anatomy class for two or three months, yet graduates on time; the engineering student who didn’t study about the properties of cement, who may later on be involved in a building project. Hopefully, these students will have enough integrity to study what they missed. But let’s not go there, since we have an interesting case of Moed Bet in this week’s parshat be-haalotcha.


God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, on the first new moon of the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying: Let the Israelite people offer the Passover sacrifice at its set time: you shall offer it on the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, at its set time; you shall offer it in accordance with all its rules and rites. Moses instructed the Israelites to offer the Passover sacrifice; and they offered the Passover sacrifice in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, in the wilderness of Sinai. Just as God had commanded Moses, so the Israelites did. But there were some householders who were impure by reason of a corpse and could not offer the Passover sacrifice on that day. Appearing that same day before Moses and Aaron, those householders said to them, “Impure though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting God’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?” Moses said to them, “Stand by, and let me hear what instructions God gives about you.” And God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any party—whether you or your posterity—who is defiled by a corpse or is on a long journey would offer a Passover sacrifice to God, they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, and they shall not leave any of it over until morning. They shall not break a bone of it. They shall offer it in strict accord with the law of the Passover sacrifice (Numbers 9:1-12).

And that is the origin of what we call Pesach Sheni. Note that God did not allow people to game the system, and if they did, they would be punished:

But if any party who is pure, and not on a journey, refrains from offering the Passover sacrifice, that person shall be cut off from kin, for God’s offering was not presented at its set time; that party shall bear the guilt (Numbers 9:13).

Furthermore, even though the people were only concerned that they were impure, God extended his grace to those who were on a long journey as well, even though that was not part of the original request. Not only do we have the origin of moed bet here (by reason of impurity), we can argue the case for the origin of moed gimel (by reason of being on a journey). Certainly, those of our soldiers who were in Gaza and Lebanon for 2-6 months qualify for this leniency.


While on the topic of our soldiers who are fighting on two fronts, and possibly soon on three fronts, it is worthwhile looking at the parsha and Rashi’s commentary on an interesting passage:

The people took to complaining bitterly before God. God heard and was incensed: a fire of God broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp. The people cried out to Moses. Moses prayed to God, and the fire died down. That place was named Taberah, because a fire of God had broken out against them (Numbers 11:1-3).

Although it is not God, but the Hezbollah who is responsible, we are all too familiar with the fires that are destroying the Northern communities, both fire from guns and actual forest fires. The conflagration is in the south as well—it is ravaging the “outskirts” of our State of Israel. It is the periphery which has become uninhabitable. Rashi’s take on this is that it is because the people who are complaining are wicked:

AND THE PEOPLE (ha-am) WERE COMPLAINING — The term העם “the people” always denotes wicked men. Similarly, it states, (Exodus 17:4) “what shall I do unto this people (לעם הזה)? [yet a little and they will stone me]”, and it further states, (13:10) “This evil people [which refuses to hear my words]”. But when they are worthy men who are spoken of they are called עמי “My people”, as it is said, (Exodus 5:1) “Let My people go”; (Micah 6:3) “O My people, what have I done unto thee” (Rashi on Numbers 11:1).

Now it’s true we have had a lot of people complaining recently about the corruption in the government, police brutality, the currying to the religious parties so that they stay in the coalition. And then there are the counter arguments by those in power, who take (at least to me) God’s name in vain, who are committing a hilul hashem (desecration of God’s name) by calling those people who are protesting evil and even responsible for what happened on October 7th.

Rashi goes on:

The term מתאננים ”were complaining” denotes [people who seek] “a pretext” — they seek a pretext how to separate themselves from following the Omnipresent.

This can also work both ways: there are the haredi (ultra-orthodox) population who have separated themselves from Israeli society by their base claims that their studying will save Israel from itself and that therefore they should not have to carry the burden of serving in the army. That is clearly a pretext in my eyes. In a brilliant and passionate statement, an Orthodox rabbi and psychologist wrote on Facebook how there is absolutely no halachic justification for the haredi refusal to serve the nation:

The Torah that was given to us at Sinai is a Torah of Life – it is supposed to guide our lives, and the living righteous are a light, “even in their death they are called alive”. The Torah of the new Israeli ultra-Orthodox is a “Torah of Life” of a completely different kind – it preserves the life of those who cling to it, by requiring others to die in its name in its place. It is a Torah redeemed by the blood of Jewish soldiers.

When Rashi continues in his explanation, we can easily identify with the people of Israel:

“God heard” means a pretext that was evil in the ears of the Lord, i.e., that they intended that it should reach His ears and that He might show annoyance. They said: “Woe unto us! How weary we have become on this journey: it is now three days that we have had no rest from the wearisomeness of the march!”

If we think about it, three days is nothing and they are complaining! What about the non-stop protesting of the nation who “only” want the hostages to be freed, before it is too late and there are none alive to bring back.

Rashi of course justifies God’s wrath:

AND HIS WRATH GLOWED (He was incensed) — He said in anger: How ungrateful you are, “I meant it for your good — that you might immediately come into the land”.— He said in anger: How ungrateful you are, “I meant it for your good — that you might immediately come into the land”.

It reminds me of the refrain of the father who spanks the child to “educate” him and says it hurts me more than it hurts you.

And finally, Rashi concludes:

[AND THE FIRE … DESTROYED THEM THAT WERE] IN THE EXTREMITY OF THE CAMP — i.e. those amongst them who were extreme in baseness — these were “the mixed multitude”. But R. Simeon the son of Manassia said: it means that the fire consumed the most distinguished and prominent ones among them.

And sure enough today, we have the ugliness of blaming the victims—it’s those of the erev rav “the mixed multitudes” who are responsible. And by othering those who are suffering, it is possible to allow the police to act violently towards those who are protesting.


At this point, some of you may wonder if there is any connection between God’s willingness to give the Israelites a second chance to observe Passover, if for legitimate reasons, they couldn’t observe the holiday. It seems to me that God is opposed to the Israelites complaints. Yet the Deity is also reasonable; when later on they complain there is no food, God sends them manna. When they are bored with manna, the Lord sends them birds from the sky. It is human nature to complain and God recognizes this—but at some point, like humans, God loses his temper. Does this mean we should stop protesting? Absolutely not—we are the people of the BOOKS (in the plural). Arguing with God, not being satisfied with the status quo, tikkun olam all evolve from dissatisfaction. Our prime minister denigrates protesters as violent extremists and the deputy Knesset Speaker went so far as to denounce the protesters as a branch of Hamas. True he did apologize. Everyone is shifting blame and discrediting opposition. The tragedy of our country, as we move towards becoming less and less of a democratic state, is that disagreement is now considered treason and something that has to be put down with water cannons, rather than encouraged. Fire hoses rained on innocent bystanders by the police, who are “enforcing law and order” — with emphasis on forcing–is not a healthy solution. Leniency, second chances and moderate discourse seems to be evaporating in the heat of the moment. Our life is heating up rather than cooling off. Perhaps it is time for some of us to stand down and not let self-interest hold sway. Give us a second chance, a moed bet, or even a third chance, a moed gimel to fix our world.

Shabbat shalom

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible and Modern Midrash from a feminist perspective on zoom. She began her weekly blog for TOI in June 2022. Her book on Wifebeating has been translated into Hebrew and is forthcoming with Carmel Press in 2025.
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