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A Schoolboy’s Joy When School Is Over

In this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Beha’alotcha, we come across an oddity in the actual Torah script. Two verses are bracketed by an inverted and backward Hebrew letter נ, “nun.” (Bamidbar 10:35-36). The Oral Law, Talmud Shabbat, 116a discusses this issue. “These brackets indicate that this section is in the wrong (contextual) place. Where does it belong?

Rav Ashi said, ‘In the section on the Standards’” (earlier chapter 2, after verse 17). The Talmud continues, “Why then is it written here? In order to separate between narratives of successive sins.” Rashi explains that had this section not been placed where it is, 3 successive sins would have been recorded. This written structure would have indicated a type of intrinsic negative nature to the Israelites similar to the way we view the intrinsic nature of an ox that gores three times. The Talmud, then, speaks of these 2 bracketed verses as a separate book indicating these verses express a separate positive theme and attribute our Israelite ancestors could achieve. What is this theme?

The Talmud also mentions that the second of the three recorded sins is clearly the event recorded directly following the brackets. That is the sin of the “murmurers.” This second sin is thus set off from a previous first sin. But where is that first sin mentioned? The Talmud explains it is encrypted into Bamidbar 10:33 just two verses before the brackets, “They journeyed from the mountain of Hashem…”  Rabbi Chanina explained, “This teaches us that they turned aside from the Eternal.” But we must ask, how does “journeying from the mountain of Hashem” constitute turning aside from God? After all, the people had to leave Mt Sinai at some point to get to Israel!

One thing is very clear. The written Torah is complex. It is not to be taken superficially. It cannot be properly understood without the Oral Law. Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch wrote that the Written Torah stands in relation to the Oral Law as a full lecture does to notes. To the one who heard the full lecture, the notes help the person remember all the points. However, to the person just reading the notes, they remain incomprehensible on their own without any further elaboration.

The answer to our question, how the first sin is conveyed in the phrase,“ they journeyed from the mountain of Hashem,” is given by the “Agada,” the non-halachic part of the Oral Law. Here the Agada states, “They set forward from Mt Sinai with joy like a child who runs away from school saying, ‘Perhaps He will give us more commandments if we stay!’”  The Ramban explains the phrase, “They set forth from the mountain of God,” means their intention was to remove themselves from there because it was the mountain of God. So, this seemingly simple record of the nation setting forth to go to Israel mentions yet conceals something very significant.

From the Agada we get a deep insight into the philosophy of Torah. Sin does not always involve an action. Rather, sin can present itself or hide in the guise of a normal activity. Therein lies its danger.  In this case travelling away from Mt Sinai, which had to eventually occur, masked an underlying defect in the people. If the people were to perfect themselves and become the “light to the nations” they were chosen to be, their flaw would have to be pointed out to them.

My mentor and teacher, Harav Yisroel Chait offered the following insight. Their  defect resided in their unconscious attitude toward mitzvoth. While happy on the one hand to have been chosen by God, on the other hand they really didn’t want the responsibility. Too many obligations were already imposed on them. Perhaps others would be coming shortly. When they travelled forward, they felt nothing further would be required of them just like the feeling a student has when class is over. No more assignments can be given and if they are, the student can claim he wasn’t there when they were given. Similarly, the principal cannot impose any further rules or requirements on the students once they are no longer in school.

This attitude, depicted by the analogy of the child’s feeling towards school, if we are honest about ourselves, often characterizes the feelings we have toward mitzvoth. The Torah doesn’t want us to gloss over this attitude. We can only improve if we confront it head on. If we can recognize it when we have it, we can take the appropriate steps to change it. That self- awareness is perhaps the hardest step but it is also the most significant step we can take toward improvement. Letting it lie dormant only leads to further sin and often of a worse nature, inappropriate and harmful actions.

What then is the message of this separate bracketed section stated by Moshe? It is that the best journey for man is the joyous submission to the system of the Torah notwithstanding all its requirements, restrictions and obligations. This was the attitude Moshe had. It was the one he hoped the Jews with him in the desert and us as well would embrace. That is the attitude of a mature person.  The message was important not only for the first generation of Jews. It is important for every generation of Jews because it is part of our human nature to feel this way at times.  The message contained in the bracketed verses is so significant that, as the Talmud mentions, some rabbis considered them a complete and separate book of the Torah unto itself.

Through study one can come to follow the system of mitzvoth with this spirit. Through study one can see the benefit each and every mitzvah affords. Then a person would joyously run for more rather than emulate the child joyously running away.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan