Parashas Behaalosecha

Parashas Behaalosecha recounts the episode of the assembled throng in the Jewish People’s midst who harbored a craving and clamored for meat. Hashem dispatched to the Jewish People’s camp a large amount of quail, enough to supply the entire nation with meat for a full month. Afterward, He smote the people for their inappropriate demand. The Midrash expounds (Bamidbar Rabbah 15:24 and Tanchuma, Behaalosecha 16):
When the complainers were consumed, all the elders were consumed also. The punishment of the elders was like that of Nadav and Avihu, for the elders also acted with improper exuberance when they ascended Mount Sinai and beheld the Divine Presence. As it is written (Shemos 24:11): “They beheld God, and they ate and drank.” Did they really eat and drink at that time? Of course not. But they acted like a servant snatching bites of his master’s food out of the master’s hand. That is, they acted with an unseemly exuberance, as if they were eating and drinking. These elders, and Nadav and Avihu, deserved to be consumed at that very moment, but Hashem did not wish to disrupt the joy of the Giving of the Torah. … So, instead, Nadav and Avihu died when they entered the Tent of Meeting [offering a foreign fire], and the elders died along with the craving throng.
The Maggid prefaces his explanation of this Midrash with some background discussion. The first step a person must take, the Maggid says, if he seeks to attain spiritual greatness is to eliminate his negative tendencies and detach himself from worldly pursuits. In this vein, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 34:13-15): “Who is the man who desires life, who loves days of seeing good. … Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” David does not mean, far be it, that it is useless for a person to do good until he has rid himself entirely of evil. Hashem accepts good deeds even from those who are deeply soiled with evil. Still, the choicest good deeds are those a person does after detaching himself from evil, for when a person has done so, his pattern of good conduct will endure. The masters of moral teaching draw an analogy to dyeing a garment that got soiled. If someone tries to dye the garment as it is, the dye will take hold for a while, but eventually it will wear off. But if he first launders the garment thoroughly until it is completely free of any stain, the dye will be firmly absorbed into the garment and will remain intact permanently.
The Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 42:7-8 records a dispute among the Sages regarding how long the Jewish People held onto the lofty level they attained at the time of the Giving of the Torah. R. Eliezer ben Yaakov said 29 days, R. Shimon bar Yochai said 11 days, R. Shimon ben Chalafta and R. Yonah said two days, and R. Yehudah bar Ilaui said one day. These opinions are all astounding, but R. Meir stated an opinion that is even more astounding. He said that the Jewish People did not attain true loftiness for even one day, but at the very moment they said “we will do and we will listen,” they had idolatrous thoughts in their hearts, as it is written (Tehillim 78:36-37): “They wooed Him with their mouths, and pledged to Him falsely with their tongues. Their hearts were not firmly with Him, and they were not steadfast in His covenant.” How could this possibly be?
The Maggid explains what happened via the idea presented above. The reason that revelation at Sinai did not take firm hold in the Jewish People’s hearts was that they left Egypt before the appointed time and had not been fully purged of evil tendencies. When the Jews said “we will do and we will listen,” they did not deliberately lie to Hashem, far be it. Rather, their promise stood on an unsteady foundation: the word יכזבו in Tehillim 78:36 should not be read as indicating deceit, but rather unsteadiness and predisposition to an eventual downturn, just as the expression כזבו מימיו is used to describe a spring whose flow eventually faltered (cf. Yeshayah 58:11). The final redemption will be without haste (ibid. 52:12), and then our spiritual position will be secure.
The Maggid now turns to the Midrash we quoted at the outset. He suggests that this Midrash may be explained as follows. At the time the elders beheld the Divine Presence, they were not at a high enough spiritual level to merit this privilege. They had not sufficiently detached themselves from the worldly realm; in the midst of their inner being they still harbored some craving for physical pleasures. Accordingly, when Hashem smote the Jews who expressed an inappropriate craving for meat, He smote the elders also, for the inappropriate physical craving they harbored while reaching for spiritual heights.
The Maggid brings out the point with a parable. A man had a wife from an ignoble family, and her behavior was thoroughly galling, but nonetheless he loved her. Eventually she died, and the man decided to remarry. He resolved to seek a God-fearing wife. He found what he was looking for, a pious and highly refined woman. He married her and was pleased with her. Once, while he was telling her how highly he regarded her, he said: “You should know, my love, that whenever I behold your splendor, I feel as if my first wife arose from her grave.” His wife was very irritated, and she said: “If you say that you love your wicked first wife, then you are showing that the love you displayed toward me is totally false, for she and I are complete opposites. If you truly love me because of my virtuous conduct, you should be expressing great hatred for your first wife because of her evil ways.”
The parallel is as follows. The elders derived great pleasure from beholding the Divine Presence, and it seemed to them as if they were eating and drinking. The way they felt showed that they still had some desire for eating and drinking, and thus were still entrenched in the physical world. It was therefore impossible for complete love for Hashem to abide within them.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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