Reading last week’s parsha, Baha’alotecha, this past Shabbat, a particular Hebrew root struck me over and over again, running through the final three alit – א.ס.פ, to add, collect, continue, and gather. While not the rarest root, more than half of its appearances in Bamidbar appear in these 63 psukim (Bamidmar 10:25–12:16). When such a leitmotif appears we must ask why and how does this word capture and tie together these disparate events in which it appears?
Before we look at where and how the word appears, let’s quickly review the context. The Israelites are finally leaving Mount Sinai after being there for nearly an entire year. They have just been counted, told how to camp, march, and travel to their final destination, the Land of Israel. They have been cast into encampments by tribe and an ideal structural vision of the march has already been presented. The finishing touches are put on the Levites to consecrate and prepare them properly and they are off into the wilderness.
The ideal immediately hits gritty reality and we hear that the Flag of Dan, the group of tribes travelling at the back of the march, are מאסף לכל המחנות. As they begin to move forward, those at the back are starting to collect from the other encampments both lost items (Rashi) and the stragglers (Da’at Zekanim). The עיף and the יגע, the tired, the sick, the old, and the young that just a year ago were ambushed by Amalek (Shmot 17:8) are once again falling behind. So when we see the root again, we perhaps are not surprised that the אספסוף, the “collected ones”, have now become one with the mixed multitudes (the erev rav of Shmot 12:38, see Ibn Ezra). They have merged with the oppressed of Egypt that bravely threw in their lot with the Jews and joined them on their exodus (Rashi).
In the meanwhile, two incidents occur that are rather insightful. Moshe asks Chovav, his Midianite brother-in-law, not to leave (Bamidbar 10:29), and those at the edge of the camp start to complain and God punishes them (Bamidbar 11:1).
Chovav, according to Ramban, wanted to leave because he did not see a place for himself in the Israelite nation once it reached the Land of Israel. This may push us to recall an incident that occurred the last time we encountered the Tribe of Dan as unique. In Vayikra 24:10 we heard of the blasphemer who according to the midrash (see Rashi) fought specifically because as the son of an Egyptian man and Danite woman, who had thrown in his lot with the Jewish people, he wanted to pitch his tent with his mother’s tribe and they rejected him. And in fact, Shadal understands that the aforementioned אספסוף was in fact entirely composed of intermarried couples and their children.
At this point, at the (trailing?) edge of the camp, those at the periphery of the tribal system are beginning to worry and lose faith (Ramban) and are trying to find a pretext to voice their issues (Rashi) but fail to do so productively. While the simple reading of the text seems to be that God punishes them for this lack of faith, interestingly, the commentators say it is the leaders of the nation that are punished! (Sifrei Bamidbar 85:1) The lesson, however, is not learned (Abarbanel), the fire of indignation dies down, but the problems remain. The אספסוף begin to agitate again (Bamidbar 11:4) as their complaints continue and their needs are unmet – though whether they really are just asking for a change in food or they are projecting other needs onto that desire is already brought up by the Sages (see Rabbeinu Bachya). This time, though, this motley collection who are structurally and in practice excluded from the norm – are joined in protest by the rest of the nation (ויבכו גם בני ישראל).
Moshe’s authority is finally challenged for the first time head on, and in many ways he throws up his hands, as if under Amelekite attack. He no longer feels fit to lead alone – he is unable to meet the people’s specific request or their greater needs. God’s proposed solution comes in the form of a new gathering (אספה) of leaders, drawn by lot (Rashi), to represent the entire people (this connection between the new leadership and those that are aggrieved is already hinted at in the Tanchuma). Then Moshe gathers (ויאסף) the elders and God’s spirit descends upon them and they have a one-time prophecy (ולא יספו). Even at this moment of seemingly successful reform, two men, Eldad and Medad, are left out and start to prophecy in the midst of the masses. Joshua tells Moshe to lock them up (כלאם) for prophesizing the truth about Moshe’s death and Joshua’s succession (Rashi)! Joshua fears that Moshe will think that he is trying to supplant him (Or HaChayim). His defensiveness, even if whole-hearted, earns him a public rebuke from the paragon of selfless leadership, Moshe. (In fact, he may even be punished by God for this outburst) But the underlying issues are still not addressed, as Moshe and the new leaders head home and let things continue as they are, adding up (ויאסף) – and as soon as they walk away, the storm gathers (Rabbeinu Bachya and Abarbanel).
The masses request, however, are misplaced and misguided and they are punished by the very abundance of the thing they thought they needed. The quail swarm and pile up (ויאספו) and even the least among the [aggrieved] (!) gathers (אסף) ten piles of fowl that will prove fatal. But with the death of the misguided, the problems of the nation don’t just simply evaporate.
As soon as the quail episode ends, the final episode of our parsha and the denoument occurs. Miriam and Aharon, the leader’s very own brother and sister, are discussing Moshe’s Cushite wife. What they are discussing exactly is a debate – her appearance (for good or bad), her inner beauty, Moshe’s mistreatment of her, etc (see Rashi). Whatever it is exactly, God gets angry and rebukes them; their complaints reflect entitlement and privilege and they need to learn humility, like their brother, if they are to lead. Even though God agrees to heal her, he tells Moshe Miriam must be stopped and locked up outside the camp for seven days, echoing Joshua’s language earlier (תכלם). We are taught elsewhere the punishment for lashon hara is leprosy because lashon hara causes divisiveness, and by leaving the camp the leper, in their quarantine, must re-learn how to relate to the society (bArakhin 16b). They must learn humility (Tanchuma, Metzora 3) and reflect on how they have harmed society and the meaning of their own place within the camp. Only upon this reflection and change in attitude, can Mariam be re-integrated and accepted (האסף).
So what can we learn from the series of incidents tied together from the moment that they leave Sinai tied together with this leitmotif? As soon as the Israelites left the ideal world of Mount Sinai, fatal flaws appear. Those that seemed extraneous – not part of the main story – the mixed multitude of Egypt, the tribeless and intermarried, and the vulnerable are out of place and feel deep discontent. This discontent is not limited to the edge of the camp – when it is not dealt with properly, it festers and affects everyone, from their neighbors just inside the proper camp (the tribe of Dan) all the way to the very center of society, the leadership itself. Moshe perhaps does the best thing a leader could do in this situation but the problems run so deep that even democratizing leadership fails in the short-term. Furthermore, the very solution the people begged for turns out to be improper and just adds to their problems. The issues go deeper though – there is clearly a problem in the very leadership that surrounds Moshe – Joshua, Miriam, and Aharon are all complicit in varied ways and Moshe does not stand up and push back but endures silently and even maintains the status quo. While the Zohar is not particularly empathetic, there is perhaps a deep lesson in that it viewed the mixed multitude (erav rav) as the ultimate challenge to achieving redemption, starting with Moshe’s own attitude.
The encampment is by Divine command, but it is God in many ways that undermines the “ideal” narrative – who punishes the leadership, who spreads prophecy beyond the elite, who punishes Miriam. While public rebukes occur and small reforms are implemented, the problems persist and ultimately lead to the greatest challenges to Moshe and his inner circle, the incidenct of the spies and Korach’s rebellion. The solution presented in Bamidbar, whether we see it as ideal or less than, is that the nation needs more time in the wilderness. A new generation must arise learning vulnerability and inculcating trust, under a new leadership. Only then will it be properly ready to enter the Promised Land, united as a single nation, and prepared to enter a new stage in their relationship with God.