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by Jacob Solomon

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They journeyed from the Mountain of G-d…(10:33)


The Ramban interprets this phrase to the detriment of the Israelites: meaning that the Israelites left Mount Sinai with the same attitude as a child that runs away from school. Through the Ten Commandments and the building of the Tabernacle (Mishkan), they had moved a long way towards becoming a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Ex. 19:6). Nevertheless they started a new chapter of communal offenses from the moment that they resumed their travels. Firstly, they left with the feeling that they no longer had to be on best behavior, as stated above. Secondly, the Israelites grumbled against G-d (11:1), because of the prospect of a long journey to the Promised Land (Ramban ad loc.). Thirdly (the mixed-multitude) fringe groups influenced the Israelites to demand meat to eat: the Torah testifies that the Manna was sufficient for their needs. And finally when the quails came, the Israelites showed greed and gluttony; by gathering them in numbers far and away beyond their needs.

Wholesale punishment only came after that final sin: the gross self-indulgence unworthy of those who had received the Torah. What was special about this offense that caused a very large destruction (11:33) to fall on the Israelites?

Like the Sin of the Golden Calf, people died for their participation in some of the incidents listed above. In sharp contrast to the Sin of the Golden Calf, none of them appear to have involved the breaking of any of the 613 Mitzvot. The punishment of death by the Hand of G-d appears very harsh in the circumstances.

In working on these questions, there appears to be two complementary approaches:

Firstly - as a father chastises his son, G-d chastises you ... (Deut. 8:5). This is seen when looking at the way that G-d responded to each of the four episodes. Leaving Mt. Sinai with an unacceptably casual attitude was something that had to be corrected, but in a positive ‘fatherly’ way. No actual harm had yet been done, but such a way of thinking would invariably lead to further transgression. This was all the more serious as the Divine Presence was with them at all times in the most intense form – in the Mishkan. Therefore the text relates: ‘When the Ark would journey, Moses said: Arise G-d… let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee from before before You… and when it rested he would say: Return, O G-d, among the myriad thousands of Israel’ (10:35-6). Thus the Israelites were subtly, but firmly reminded that they did not leave His Presence on Mount Sinai, but it traveled with them. The inverted letter nuns that precede and succeed the passage emphasize the importance of the need for a change in attitude. The start was wrong – a new start was required!

However the Israelites did not take the hint. This is shown in the next incident – where evil people (Rashi to 11:1) caused open discontent amongst the masses, without due cause (implied in Ramban to 11:1). Here G-d killed the individuals most liable: either those that started the trouble, or the leaders – those who could have prevented it (according to different opinions in Sifrei 85). However the masses that followed were not punished on that occasion.

In the third incident – where the Israelites demanded meat, G-d used a new tactic following Moses’ despair: ‘I am no longer able to bear this people’ (11:14). G-d brought the leadership nearer to the people with view that the Israelites would be more cooperative if they were to be led by people they already knew had been on their side (Sifrei 92). By doing so the Israelites would repent. However the text implies that they did not improve their attitude and conduct, even when part of Moses’ Divine authority was extended to seventy people who were personally known by the Twelve Tribes to be one of them. It appears that the new system with the seventy elders did not succeed in preventing further moral decline of the nation, as shown by the gluttony. So G-d proceeded to the next stage… punishing those that participated, as well as instigated the greed with the quails. In short the Israelites received graded positive and negative warnings and they did not take them seriously. Having given a lighter warning with no effect, Our Father and King knew what was best for His People - to make the point more severely.

Secondly, the Divine reaction to the events studied show that the Torah is not just a system of laws, but an entire code of morals. Although (following Saadia Gaon: see Rashi to Ex. 24:12) the legal part is summarized in the Ten commandments, expanded to include the 613 Mitzvot, there is an important implied part of the Torah – the moral side. This is seen in the innumerable lessons and values learnt from the beginning of Genesis onwards, including Adam, Noah, the Generation of the Flood and Tower of Babel, and so on. The moral side is the context in which the Torah is given. By the Israelites progressively descending the moral ladder (in the incidents metioned above), they were destroying the very structure that made the keeping of the Torah possible. For that reason the Divine punishment for the events discussed was so severe.



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