16 Sivan 5764
The Right Pace to Leave a Holy Place
One of the notable highlights of our parasha is the set of backward letters nun, which encapsulate two p’sukim. One opinion (Shabbat 116a) says that it indicates that the p’sukim were brought from their natural position in the Torah to separate between two unfortunate episodes (puranut). The second puranut was clearly the miton’nim, Bnei Yisrael’s complaints that follow the encapsulated p’sukim. The first incident, says the gemara, was, "They traveled from the mountain of Hashem a path of three days" (Bamidbar 10:33). What was wrong with that, as this traveling, like all others, Hashem directed with the Divine cloud leading the way?
Tosafot (ad loc.) cites the midrash that like a small child running away from school, "so [Bnei Yisrael] were running away from Mt. Sinai a path of three days, for they had learned there much Torah." The simple understanding is that they were afraid that if they remained longer they might receive even more commandments, and so they left hastily. There seems to be a hint of the haste in the phrase the midrash repeats twice, "a path of three days," that they actually traversed it in one day (see Rashi on chumash). But it is still difficult to understand the criticism for diligence to follow Hashem’s lead on a path pointing toward Eretz Yisrael.
Bnei Yisrael were correctly happy to move on their way toward the future challenges and opportunities ahead. However, they did not properly appreciate the importance of the spiritual provisions they were to bring from Mt. Sinai, or the difficulty of the road ahead. The midrash’s stressing of the fact that the path should have taken three days implies that the speed of the travel was part of the problem, in addition to the desire to leave. Bnei Yisrael did not appreciate that a path of three days should take three days. One cannot always arrive at the destination earlier than ordained.
Rashi (on the gemara, ibid.) says that the first puranut was, "the rabble in their midst had a desire, and Bnei Yisrael also wept again, saying, ‘who will feed us meat’" (Bamidbar 11:5). This is very difficult, as this event is found after the miton’nim, and the encapsulated p’sukim do not separate between them. We can explain as follows. Bnei Yisrael’s lack of readiness to leave Mt. Sinai in an orderly fashion lead to a lack of spiritual balance, which gave rise to the subsequent ascendance of the rabble to prominence. It is this root of the problem that the Torah identifies as the puranut.
There is a lesson in all of this for our lives. We often correctly identify a distant goal as a Divinely ordained challenge in our lives. But we do not always appreciate how the tools we received at Sinai are ones we need to gather up carefully and lovingly to accompany us on the path and make it a safe one. We are also not always patient enough to know that it takes a long time to cover a long distance, and we need to pace ourselves appropriately to arrive in peace.
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