Parshat Beha'Alotecha

Transience

This parsha contains detailed camping and traveling instructions for the desert. God commands the People of Israel to follow the cloud, when the cloud rested atop the Mishkan (Tabernacle) it was a sign that they should set up camp and when the cloud rose it was a signal to pack up camp and continue their journey. (The following verses can be read as a command or in the past tense. Here they are translated in command form.)

“Whenever the cloud should rise from the tent, then after that the People of Israel shall travel. And in the place that the cloud will rest, there the People of Israel shall camp. According to God the People of Israel shall travel and according to God they shall camp, all the days that the cloud is on the Mishkan they shall camp.” (Bamidbar 9, 17-18)

The Torah further empowers the cloud to command Israel by calling it the “charge of God,” as in “The People of Israel kept the charge of God and did not travel.” (ibid v. 19) This verse turns the every desert camp and every journey into the fulfillment of a Divine commandment- a charge of God. Through this commandment the entirety of the People of Israel’s prolonged stay in the desert is instilled with spiritual significance- every moment was the fulfillment of a Divine command. (Malbim 9, 19-20)

After this general instruction the Torah goes into further detail, into the various practical applications of the cloud’s movements. The Torah explains that at times the cloud would rest in its place “many days.” (v. 19) Other times the cloud would only rest “a few days” atop the Mishkan. (v. 20) There was the possibility that the cloud would rest for just one night “from night until day and the cloud would rise in the morning” along with the possibilities that it would rest “or one day or a month or a year.” (v. 21-22) And then the general instruction is repeated, the people are utterly dependent on the seemingly arbitrary movements of the cloud.

The lengthy description filled with unnecessary details and examples is strange. If the only point of this section is to emphasize the people’s dependence on the cloud’s movements it could have been done in one clear verse. Similarly, if the point is to clear up any misunderstandings or hesitation that may have come up in extreme situations, such as when the cloud rests for very short or very long period, then the Torah could have simply warned the people that such a possibility existed without all the detail.

Ramban explains that the detailed description is there to teach us the level of commitment that was demanded from the people throughout this time period. Even if they were camped in an uncomfortable location they had no choice but to stay there for as long as it took until the cloud instructed them otherwise. Conversely, they may have arrived exhausted at a new location, unpacked and organized their things, and set up the Mishkan, only to have the cloud rise early the next morning and instruct them to pack it all up. They might be devastated by all the effort it took to take everything apart, pack it up, and travel yet again. Even worse, maybe the cloud would stay put for a day, so the people would settle in for a longer camp, only to wake up the next morning to find that the cloud had risen, ordering them to pack it all up and get moving. And so the verse apply describes the situation when it says, “The People of Israel kept the charge of God and did not travel.” As Ramban explains, “Through their awe of God and their fulfillment of the charge of His command they did not travel.” (Ramban ibid, 19-22)

Yet Ramban also suggests that this entire section may have only been written after forty years of traveling in the desert. As he says, “It’s possible that this is what happened to them in their journey and they did as is related here… and this is the reason the scripture mentions the lengths [of time] in detail.” If this is the case then this detail is not to inform the people of the different possibilities they may face, but rather it is an account of the difficulty they experienced following the cloud’s direction. 

It’s a description of the uncertainty and lack of stability they faced as a result of the commandment to camp and travel according to the cloud. As Rav Yehudah describes in the name of Rav: “Those who dwell in booths and travel the wilderness, their lives are not life…” (T.B. Eruvin 55b) The comparison between those who dwell in booths, temporary structures, and the nomadic lifestyle of the desert draws our attention to the nature of such a lifestyle. In order to live this way one must accept that they are not in control of their own life, rather it is controlled by higher powers. 

The Talmud Yerushalmi relates a dispute about the type of life the People of Israel had in the desert. Was it generally stable? Or perhaps they spent forty years “living out of suitcases?” The dispute is brought in connection to a discussion concerning the prohibition of building on Shabbat. The gemara assumes that only building that is meant to be permanent is prohibited on Shabbat. Absurdly enough, the original model for the prohibition to build on Shabbat is the construction of the Mishkan, which is specifically a temporary structure that was designed to be dismantled every time the people traveled.

“What building was there in the Mishkan- putting the planks in the sockets- wasn’t that temporary?

Rabbi Yosa said: Since they would travel and camp according to the Divine will it was as if it was permanent.

Rabbi Yossi bei Rabbi Bun said: Since the Holy One blessed be He promised them that He would bring them into the Land [of Israel] it was as if it was temporary.”

(T.Y. Shabbat 12:1) 

According to Rabbi Yossi bei Rabbi Bun life in the desert always felt temporary for the People of Israel. This was not due to the fact that they would occasionally have to pack up and switch camps, rather it was based on their awareness that the desert was not their final destination. The people knew that they would eventually settle in Israel and this knowledge made the journey through the desert feel like traveling through a long hallway and the camps in the desert feel like rest stops along the way. On a deeper level, it seems that it was not the temporary nature of each individual encampment that made life so difficult, but rather the knowledge that the entire enterprise was transient. 

On the other hand Rabbi Yosa believes that “there is nothing more permanent than that which is temporary.” The fact that their own judgment was immaterial and they were traveling and camping according to Divine commands made the experience “like something that was permanent, eternal.” In the Talmud Bavli a similar idea is brought by Rava, who describes the subjective experience that was created by the people’s utter dependence on the Divine command: 

“Rava said to him: You said the flags of the desert? Since it says concerning them, ‘According to God they shall travel and according to God they shall camp,’ for them it was like something that was permanent.” (T.B. Eruvin 55b) 

Contrary to what we have seen until this point, Rabbi Yosa asserts that the people experienced a sense of permanence when they traveled through the desert. The people settled in each place “until further notice.” So even though that further notice could come after a day or a year, it didn’t matter, anytime they received the instruction to camp they settled in as if their stay would be permanent. 

Rabbi Yosa’s opinion may seem strange at first, but it touches upon an essential element of our lives. We are completely subject to the circumstances around us; our lives are enveloped by an air of uncertainty that makes it impossible to plan for our future. But this knowledge does not diminish the illusion that is essential for us to live- that our lives are somewhat permanent. And even though the only thing that is sure about our lives is that we continue to progress steadily toward their end, this rarely affects our feeling of permanence, our need for a solid foundation, and the significance we instill into every moment of our lives. 

The most novel aspect of this section is the cloud. The cloud that rests above us in pleasant times, times of peace and stability, is the same cloud that threatens to rise and change everything. The cloud that could keep us stuck in a difficult place can also allow us to stay in a nice place. This same cloud might take us away from that place to new vistas, temporary or permanent. But no matter where it takes us, this cloud is God’s messenger. 

To summarize, their faith was great, according to God they camped, and according to God they travelled, and not only that, for they kept God’s charge. And this is what Chazal say (Yalkut Yirmiyahu Remez 447) on the verse, “I remembered the grace of your youth, you went after Me in the desert…” (Yirmiyahu 2,2) (Alshich 9, 23)

 

 

Wed, January 17 2018 1 Shevat 5778