The Mysterious Sin

Rabi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg




The tone shifts dramatically from peak to valley in this week’s Torah portion of Be’haalotcha. The Jewish people begun a slow descent into sin, starting from the second half of this Torah portion through the end of the Torah portion of Balak. It is painful to read about the missteps and deviations exhibited by the Jewish people. Each sin, though, is an opportunity to learn and gain insight, so we can avoid the incorrect path. Even the first sin recorded this week, as obscure as it is, affords us a remarkable opportunity.

What exactly was this first sin committed by the Jewish people? The Torah is as cryptic as can be (Bamidbar 11:1-3):

The people were looking to complain (ke-mitonanim), and it was evil in the ears of the Lord. The Lord heard and His anger flared, and a fire from the Lord burned among them, consuming the extremes of the camp. The people cried out to Moses; Moses prayed to the Lord, and the fire died down. He named that place Tab'erah, for the fire of the Lord had burned among them there.”

This incident is follows immediately by another sequence of sin (ibid 4):

But the multitude among them began to have strong cravings. Then even the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, "Who will feed us meat?”

What was the specific sin alluded to in the initial verses? Were people killed as a result? Why is the Torah being so ambiguous about it?

The commentators are acutely aware of the obscurity contained within these verses. To begin, Rashi explains that the complaint of the Jews was in fact a pretext. The Jewish people (or at least those who were involved with this specific sin) were attempting to find a way to sever their relationship with God. They came up with a ruse:

They said, Woe is to us! How weary we have become on this journey! For three days we have not rested from the fatigue of walking.”

In other words, according to Rashi, they fabricated a complaint. Interestingly enough, in this interpretation, God responds to the “complaint”, punishing those involved accordingly:

I meant it (travelling through the desert) for your own good-that you should be able to enter the Land immediately.”

How do we understand God’s response to the complaint, knowing that their grievance was in fact a pretext?

The Ibn Ezra offers an even more enigmatic explanation of this mysterious sin, writing simply that the perpetrators spoke “words of sin”. The Ramban takes him to task for this “incomplete” explanation. He questions why, according to the Ibn Ezra, does the Torah hide the sin of the Jewish people, rather than explain overtly the nature of the transgression (as in all other instances in the Torah). The Ramban offers his own explanation of the matter. When the Jewish people left Mount Sinai, not far from entering the Land of Israel, they came to the great wilderness. They began to question: What will we do? How will we survive in this desert? What will we eat or drink? When will we exit? This is why they are referred to as the “ke-mitonanim”, meaning “similar to” the “mitonanim”. They were like those who complain when they are already in pain. God became angry, as they should have followed Him with happiness, looking back at the precedents set through all the good He did for them to that point. Rather, they were complaining about their current fate.

The Ramban is painting a much more damning picture then the above commentaries, and we get a much clearer sense of the specifics surrounding this sin. However, he does not explain the cause of this sin, or what was driving the Jewish people to complain at this point in time.

When it comes to studying the works of the great commentators, it is critical to understand that often, what they write is a window into their minds. In reality, a person must reflect and think into what concept is being introduced, as the true wisdom of these individuals can then be appreciated.

At first glance, Rashi and the Ibn Ezra seemed more aligned than the Ramban. The Ibn Ezra offers zero specificity regarding the sin. Rashi explains that whatever they were complaining about, it was merely a pretext. The true sin, though, is never really elucidated by Rashi. Furthermore, we see God responding to the pretext, rather than the actual problem. Both of these commentators view this sin as a transition to the next sin (and those that followed), a moment in time where the Jewish people had the opportunity to repent and avoid falling deeper into the traps laid out by their distorted outlook. This period of time, post-Mount Sinai but prior to the entering into the Land of Israel, brought with it a surge of powerful emotions and insecurities. The Jewish people were at a point of complete subservience to God, but were unable to break away from their own base framework. The Ibn Ezra simply describes it as speaking words of sin. They were allowing their emotions to dictate their thoughts, expressed through these words. Rashi goes further than this. In his mind, the dangerous emotions were fueling a need to sever themselves from God. The commitment of being servants to God was too great of a burden. A life dedicated to pursuing His knowledge, rather than one guided by the instincts and driven by insecurities, seemed to have begun to lose its appeal. They needed some type of method of expressing these feelings, and they choose to complain about the short sojourn through the desert. This was a microcosm into their mindset. Rather than see the overall good that would come about by travelling through this desert and get to their future home, they chose to dwell on the momentary pain. It is this very formula that lies at the heart of the challenge of Judaism. We must be willing to put aside dwelling on whatever “restriction” the system demands of us in order to focus on the perfection it brings about. God was indeed responding to the true problem here, as their pretext was a direct link to their true problem.

At this point, both Rashi and the Ibn Ezra see the punishment as a transitionary concept. The Torah never records the amount of people killed; instead, we see the fire consuming the extremes of the camp. Were people killed? Whether or not the punishment resulted in deaths, its main objective was to stop the Jewish people in their tracks. This warning would hopefully allow them to re-organize their thoughts and return to the proper path. Instead, as we see, they are unable to break away from their emotional state. They succumb, and the next phase of sin is open rebellion.

The Ramban sees this sin as discrete. This does not mean we do not need to explain on a deeper level the nature of the sin. It is interesting to note that in the complaint proffered by the Jewish people, nowhere do they conclude that travelling through the wilderness presages their doom. Instead, the Ramban construes their complaint as one of questioning. Normally, the idea of questioning is a critical part of man’s thinking. We see plenty of instances where great Jewish leaders are presented with a plan from God, only to challenge said plan. In many of these occurrences, no criticism is heaped on the individuals. One of the core tenets of Judaism is to use our minds to pursue clarity of truth; if something contradicts reason, we must question until we understand. Alas, this high level of inquiry was not taking place here. The Jewish people had been on the receiving end of Divine Providence, and had witnessed the perfection in God’s plan. Yes, there were times where it seemed all hope was lost (such as at the Red Sea), but they always turned to prayer, to inquire and seek from God the answer to the dilemma. In this case, though, they rejected that method, and opted for questioning how God could pull it off. Standing before this great wilderness, they could not fathom how they were to survive, never mind thrive. They spoke from a state of bitterness, resolved that there was no plan, and began directing their wrath to God. It was the first stage of the rebellion.

There are no “minor” sins as recorded in the Torah. Each instance is a moment in time where the fate of the Jewish people hung in the balance. Even in this vague and cryptic story, one can sense the precariousness of the situation. Through the eyes of the commentators, we are now able to see clearly the underlying forces at play, and we can learn from them to ensure we are on the path to perfection.