David Walk

Off on the Road Home!

Did you ever read a book or see a movie about a voyage or an adventure, and it seems like it takes forever for the journey to get going? In Herman Melville’s great novel Moby Dick, they don’t actually go out to sea in search of the Great White Whale until Chapter 22. Similarly, here in the book of Bamidbar, aka In the Wilderness, the Jews don’t step off into that hostile environment until the end of Chapter 10. That first verse about venturing into the unknown is both significant and a bit mysterious.

Here’s the verse: And they set forward from the Mount of the Eternal three days’ journey; and the Ark of the Covenant of the Eternal went before them three days’ journey, to seek out a resting-place for them (Bamidbar 10:33)

So many problems or anomalies! Why is the mountain called the Mount of the Eternal, when previously it was called either Sinai or the Mount of Elokim ? Why does it sound like they travel three days twice? Why is the Ark leading the way? Weren’t we told in the order of march the Ark was in the middle (Then midway between the divisions, the Tent of Meeting, 2:17)?

Let’s answer the easiest question first. Rashi explains that there are two Arks. The beautiful work of art fashioned by Betzalel, which, indeed, remained in the middle of the nation both during encampment and during the march. But Moshe had previously made a simpler Ark for holding the Tablets, and this one continued to hold the broken Tablets and did lead the nation on the march and into battle.

Many commentaries make the case that the attitude of the nation was less than righteous as they departed the shadow of Har Sinai. The Ramban famously quotes the Midrash that the Jews hastily retreated from Har Sinai, like school children running out after school. They fled before God (Elokim) would burden them with more Mitzvot and responsibilities. Rabbeinu Bechaye adds that calling it the Mountain of the Eternal suggests that the Sages felt the essence of the move was ‘away from the Torah element associated with that mountain’.

Rav Baruch Gigi of Yeshivat Har Etziyon adds that the ‘focus here seems to be on the fact that Bnei Yisrael are journeying from God’s mountain. They are not journeying toward any goal; their goal is simply to depart from where they are. This is not a forward-oriented movement, and it obscures the significance of true advancement’. In spirituality, we must always work to increase, otherwise the entire enterprise is at risk.

 But it is the issue of the repetition of the three days of journey which really inspired the Rabbis to get creative. The S’fat Emet avers that every trek was to confront the SITRA ACHRA, the Realm of Evil (perhaps the Dark Side). That’s what we mean a couple of verses later when we declare: When the Ark set out, Moshe would declare: Advance, O Lord, scatter Your enemies, and may Your foes flee! (verse 35). We know that verse from when we open the Holy Ark in synagogue, but its original idea was the forward progress of God’s people against the Enemy, the SITRA ACHRA!

And what about the three days? Well, those are the three days before and after every Shabbat. The first three days in the verse represent the first three days of the week, when we are still living in the glow of the previous Shabbat. That’s why we allow people to say HAVDALA until Tuesday, because we feel the influence of Shabbat until then. 

The second three days refer to the idea that we begin to prepare for Shabbat on Wednesday. That’s why at the end of the daily Psalm for Wednesday (Psalm 94) we add the first two verses of Psalm 95, which are the beginning of Kabbalat Shabbat every Friday evening. We’re getting into Shabbat mode. That’s why the verse ends with the words: to seek out a resting place. Shabbat is the resting place, or the MENUCHA. 

The Pri Zadik adds that the ‘days’ are really MIDOT, character traits. We aren’t searching for the refuge of Shabbat. We are searching for the MIDOT of our Patriarchs. It is these character traits which will help us prevail in all the difficulties presented to us by the dangerous wilderness facing us as we depart from the shelter of Har Sinai. The ‘enemies’ are the three basic negative character traits:  KINA’A (jealousy), TA’AVA (lust) and KAVOD (self importance), which can thrust a human out of this world. We combat those negatives with the positive traits of the three Avot: CHESED (kindness, Avraham), GEVURA (strength of character, Yitzchak) and TIFERET (glory, Ya’akov).

So, the MIDBAR represents the ‘real’ world away from the sheltering safety of Har Sinai. The verses are describing the extraordinary measures required to survive the vicissitudes of this world. The greatest danger is not realizing that the world is full of many dangers. 

Now we can understand why this book describing the trek through the MIDBAR or wilderness must spend so much space in preparation for the journey. Here’s how Rav Jonathan Sacks describes the issue:

There is a long delay in the narrative. Ten chapters pass until the Israelites actually begin to travel. What was detaining them?…The Torah is not mere history as a sequence of events. The Torah is about the truths that emerge through time… First God creates order. Then humanity creates chaos. Terrible consequences follow…That long introduction, at the beginning of Bamidbar, is all about creating a sense of order within the camp…Tragically, as Bamidbar unfolds, we see that the Israelites turn out to be their own worst enemy…God creates order. Humans create chaos. Bad things happen, then God and Israel begin again. Will the story never end? 

Pretty pessimistic of one of the great teachers of our generation. But, of course, he’s right. But we do believe in an eventual happy ending. To bring about the anticipated ‘and they all lived happily ever after’, we must prepare carefully before venturing out into the world, the MIDBAR. Only with a strong foundation forged in our homes and our schools and our synagogues can we emerge unscathed from the vicissitudes of the ‘real world’.

There is a long intro before the Jews venture away from Har Sinai, because it is a dangerous realm out there. Prepare diligently, be careful, stay safe!!

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
Related Topics
Related Posts