In the middle of this week’s Parsha, we encounter a startling shift in the makeup and tone of Sefer Bamidbar. The first few parshiyot of the Sefer describe the nation’s preparations for departure from Har Sinai- with much text dedicated to the size of the Jewish nation and each of its tribes, and a detailed description of the structure of the nation’s encampment. G-d also commands important details to the nation regarding to their impending travels. The picture painted by these parshiyot is one of an inspired nation preparing to launch its march towards its ultimate destination, Eretz Yisrael- and doing so in a thoughtful and profound way.
Yet, soon after Am Yisrael begin their travels, a dramatic shift appears to take place. The Torah describes that “ויהי העם כמתאוננים”, “and the nation was like complainers.” This event soon snowballs into a whole slew of complaints and sins committed by Bnei Yisrael over the next few parshiyot; including major sins, such as the sin of the Spies and the rebellion of Korach, as well as a number of smaller challenges to Hashem. The contrast is startling. How could this great nation- after spending almost a full year at the foot of Mount Sinai, learning G-d’s Torah and properly preparing for its continued journey through the desert- lose its way so suddenly?
The Midrash Yelamdeinu gives a well known description of Am Yisrael’s departure that may help shed light on these events. Commenting on a passuk in this week’s parsha describing Am Yisrael traveling a distance of three days, the Midrash notes that the nation accomplished an unusual feat. Although Moshe commanded the people to keep a normal pace and travel the standard distance of one day’s travels each day, Am Yisrael ran from Har Sinai so quickly that they journeyed the distance of three days in one day- “like a young child running away from school”, describes the Midrash.
The imagery created by this Midrash is quite stark. It paints a picture of a nation that, feeling burdened by its newfound commandments and obligations, runs from Har Sinai to get away from it all; a nation intent upon escape, like a school child running quickly from school to break away from the shackles and restrictions that school comes to represent. With this imagery in mind, the continuation of Sefer Bamidbar no longer seems strange. If despite all the preparations and arrangements, Bnei Yisrael left Har Sinai intent upon escaping the responsibilities and commitments of Torah and Mitzvot- if their mindset was one of resentment and cynicism- then it is no wonder that they quickly found themselves on a path of complaint and challenge in their relationship with Hashem.
This Midrash highlights an extremely poignant and powerful connected point. The incredible spiritual level that the Jewish nation achieved at Har Sinai when they received the Torah; the unbelievable revelation of G-d that they witnessed; all the time and detail over the next year spent studying His Torah and planning their continued journey- none of it mattered if their departure from Har Sinai was marked by bitterness and frustration. The most important moment of the entire Har Sinai experience is the moment of departure from the mountain. If that moment is fraught with irritation and annoyance, then all that precedes it becomes meaningless- as the nation quickly descends into sin and transgression.
The message for us as parents is incredibly profound as well. We have often stressed the importance of taking a long-term approach to Chinuch and parenting- and the importance of sometimes sacrificing on a short-term gain in order to achieve our ultimate goals. The above Midrash highlights this point in a powerful way. As we raise and educate our children, we must consider not only the moments when our children are growing up in our home, but we must be cognizant and mindful of that future moment when they will ultimately exit our home, as well. How they leave our home, and their attitude towards their us and their Judaism as they do so, will go a long way in determining our ultimate success as parents.
In the very first paragraph of his important Sefer Chovas HaTalmidim, the Piaczesna Rebbe drives this point home by quoting the famous line in Mishlei, חנוך לנער על פי דרכו, גם כי יזקין לא יסור ממנה””- “educate each child according to his path, such that even when he gets older he won’t stray from it”. The clear message of this pasuk, the Rebbe points out, is that the ikar of chinuch is not what we teach our kids when they are younger and we have greater control over them. The primary purpose of chinuch is to raise our children in a way that will instill within them the values and basis for a life of continued avodat Hashem and growth. Our goal is not simply to get them to do what we want right now- but to make sure that, as the passuk says, “they will not stray from the path” even when they are older. If we successfully force our kids to listen to us when they are younger, but do it in a way that creates animosity and frustration; then, God forbid, they may ultimately leave our home- and its accompanying values and principles- “like a child running away from school.” We will clearly not accomplish our goals.
Attaining the necessary balance is not easy at all- but the first step is to be thoughtful and careful about how we parent. Often in the heat of the moment, our first inclination is to do all we can to ensure that our children act in the way that we want them to right now. It takes restraint and self-control to take a more long-term approach to parenting- to make sure that whatever short- terms gains we achieve don’t come at the expense of the long-term goals we hope to attain.
In this week’s parsha, Chazal highlight for us that, in spite of all that was achieved spiritually for Am Yisrael at Har Sinai, the nation was doomed to a cascading of sins and transgressions because their moment of departure was one of resentment. This failure can serve as a wakeup call to us as parents- encouraging us to be more thoughtful and forward thinking in our parenting- so that we will successfully imbue our values within our children, in a way that will stay with them well after they leave our homes.