As I’m writing this, my wife and I are preparing to embark on a trip to the United Sates. The normal disruption caused by travel is exacerbated this trip by the fact that I feel like I’m entering a time vortex, because I’m going to hear Parshat Naso again this week. As if modern air travel wasn’t disorienting enough, we throw in a time loop. But for me this week is B’ha’aloticha, and that Torah reading is all about travel.
The Jews arrived at Har Sinai at the beginning of Sivan, and stayed there until 20 Iyar over eleven months later. Our parsha begins the instructions about traveling into the desert, and, then, at the beginning of chapter 11, the first journey into that daunting wilderness. There are many details about the journey; trumpets, signal flags, order of tribes, directional clouds, but, for me, the most important rule is: According to God they encamp; according to God they travel. They observed God’s mandate (MISHMERET) by the bidding of God through Moshe (Bamidbar 9:23).
The Seforno explains that this procedure of daily vigilance and quick action was maintained whether that particular encampment was short or long. They stayed in Kadesh Barnea for years, where it must have been hard to keep this level of vigilance. The Malbim adds that even though they had the sign from the cloud over the Mishkan, temporary Temple, they still needed confirmation form Moshe.
Maimonides asks, in his Moreh Nevuchim, why wouldn’t God directly command us? After he adds a couple of other questions about God’s involvement in human affairs, He concludes that God, as much as possible wants humans to be in charge of our own decisions and destiny. So, even when something supernatural is going on (like the cloud signaling us to travel), human participation is necessary. Except at Yam Suf, military victories require people to fight, even though God has decided the outcome.
Obviously, this idea is applicable to IDF victories, and can be extended to private lives. That God provides without effort (HISHTADLUT) on our part is rare, and, perhaps Chutzpa to expect. On the other hand, we have a clear instruction in our verse that even though God clearly manifests the Divine Will for all to see, nevertheless, Moshe is still required to communicate the Divine bidding.
What is Moshe’s role? The Mei Shiloach suggests that only Moshe Rabbeinu actually saw the cloud move. He, of course, turns it into a Chassidic polemic: Only the Zadik HaDor (that’s every Chasid’s Rebbe) knows the will of God, and we are expected to follow.
This brings us to the second obvious theme of this parsha: the role of Moshe Rabbeinu. After this glorious affirmation of Moshe’s role as God’s representative, we have testimony to the terrible onus of lonely leadership. He is attacked by the nation repeatedly in chapter 11 over the travel hardships and, especially, the food. In chapter 12, he becomes estranged from his family, when Miriam and Aharon gossip about him. His greatest line is: If only the entire nation of God were given prophecy! (Bamidbar 11:29). I wish everyone could know my estrangement and isolation.
Rav Soloveitchik waxes poetic over the special nature of Moshe’s role. He begins by explaining that Moshe is so special that one of the 13 principles of faith is dedicated to him: I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moshe, ALAV HaSHALOM, was true, and that he was father of all prophets, both those that preceded him and followed him. The Rav explains the uniqueness of Moshe:
Moshe was not only the most perfect, kindest, saintliest…he was completely different…If Moshe had not been totally other, YETZIAT MITZRAIM (the exodus) would not have taken place…Because to liberate the people, one appointment was indispensable. Namely, to speak on behalf of God…The SEGULAH element in Moshe made it possible for an individual to represent the Almighty and act as His plenipotentiary. (The Rav; Thinking Aloud, Bamidbar p.76-78)
This brings us to a custom which makes our verse famous, and a little controversial. When we lift the Torah as part of its public reading, we declare: This is the Torah that Moshe presented before the Israelites (Devarim 4:44). Most people add the end of our verse: according to God’s word through Moshe. However, since there’s a rule not to quote portions of verses (TB Megilla 22a), many skip those five words, while others slip in the whole verse, which I think is preferable because we want to acclaim Moshe.
That’s the point. It’s true that our Torah reading is superficially about travel and its hardships, but behind all the issues of travel stands Moshe Rabbeinu, our greatest prophet and teacher. In our parsha, we begin a series of incidents which transform Moshe from acclaimed commander and hallowed ruler into a tragic figure unable to achieve his greatest desire: entering the Holy Land.
Again, the words of the Rav:
Whenever I read this parsha, it affects me…Sometimes I want to cry. I have to control my tears…Moshe was certain-there was not even a shadow of a doubt in his mind-that he was going to enter the Promised Land…When the people began to complain and to weep, Moshe knew: this is the end. He will never see Eretz Yisrael (Ibid. P. 47 & 52).
The Rav said that’s why there are those inverted letters NUN before and after the glorious verses we recite when taking the Torah from the ark:
When the Ark sallies forth…(Bamidbar 10:35). The glory lost its place. Those letters mark the tragic turn of events, Moshe’s detour from fulfillment.
But we must never lose sight of the unique greatness and singular contributions of Moshe Rabbeinu, the only human who could ever represent God. He remains the paradigm of what a human can achieve.