Parshat Behaalotcha 2019
Should we go trekking today, asks Mr. Israelite of Mrs. Israelite? Or should we continue to camp here? Let’s see what the cloud has to say. Not the computer cloud. Here they are, the Israelites. The census has been taken, the tribes have been divided up into camps, each camp and each family of the Levites has been assigned its role, and the whole geshicht is ready to roll. On whose order? Obviously – God and Moshe. The people’s role in all this pomp and circumstance? To obey.
That sounds familiar. In Egypt they also had to obey – Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Work, or more work. Receive straw for bricks, don’t receive straw for bricks. But one thing was constant there. At the end of the day, they returned to their abodes, simple and poor though they may have been, and they knew what to expect on the morrow.
Now they’re in the desert. The signal to march forward will come from – a cloud. When the cloud of the Shechina, the holy spirit, begins to move, they will move. When it stops, they will stop. When will it move? When will it stop? If there had been bookmakers in London at that time, the Israelites would have sent in their bets.
As Rabbah Tsipporah Livneh notes, the people have no input in these decisions. If they set up camp tonight they may have to pack up their peckalach tomorrow morning. Or maybe this is the place they’ll stay for a year. (We know from the Torah that there were a total of 42 stations during the 40 years in the desert.) Is this one of the long stops or the short ones? How can you build any sort of schedule? You know you’ll find manna in the morning, and maybe some quail in the evening. But more than that? Nada.
Is it possible that their constant remonstrations against conditions in the desert – which are truly quite deplorable – and later against Moshe are in part the result of a growing feeling of disenfranchisement, of being the fall guys, the lackeys, the pawns that are moved around at the whim of Moshe or God or whoever?
Even if we say that the complaints and backsliding and backbiting we see later are partially the result of frustration, of not gaining any more control over their lives than they had in Egypt. The problem is that even if they were aware of what was eating at them, the people still had no means of translating their dissatisfaction into some more positive or constructive actions. They didn’t have the tools or the latitude to take action.
Perhaps, then, all of the regimentation that we see at the beginning of Bamidbar is part of the divine plan to build up the character, resourcefulness and resiliency of the people. At the basic level, get yourselves in order. Then you will know whom to go to and for what. And if things don’t work out, you’ll be able to start again, a different way if necessary. To prove this point we can see that after most commandments we are told that Moshe and/or Aharon and/or the people carried out the order exactly as God had commanded.
That’s a nice theory but at least at first sight, the symbolism that appears in the Torah does not lend itself easily to such a developmental approach. The two symbols that accompany the Israelites in the desert are cloud and fire. A pillar of cloud leads them in the day, a pillar of fire at night.
A cloud is amorphous; it changes shape but never becomes or remains one particular shape. Does this mean the people will change, cloud-like over their 40-year sojourn without ever taking on a definite shape? Fire is stronger. As we recite on Kol Nidre night, in the ki hineh kachomer prayer, it can shape glass or melt it. Fire can destroy you or temper you, but the change is not gradual at all.
But on second thought, perhaps these symbols do fit the situation. If like clouds we can continuously change, adapt to new conditions, take on new faces – we can survive. We see that the Israelites learned how to fight, how to make serious demands (the tribes that wanted to settle east of the Jordan). As for fire, if we are tempered by fire, we will be stronger the next time we are challenged. Two thousand years of experience prove this to be true.
Clouds have two other functions, symbolically. They both hide and in certain cases augur ill, usually black clouds. Both symbolic meanings are reflected in today’s parsha. We feel a ground-shift. It’s only two years, but Moshe is getting tired. He says he can’t bear the load by himself any more. It’s too much for him to be the nanny for a bunch of crybabies who are not really his. (Dr. Moran Gam Hacohen says that Moshe has defined the hardest job in the world – being a mother!) What’s getting to him? Is it that even after two years the people are unable to shake off their old habits? They are still nostalgic, vociferously, for Egypt?
But there’s more. Miriam and Aharon begin to gossip behind Moshe’s back. There are clouds on the horizon, and even if they are not black, the events they augur are.
Clouds will always be with us, even on the sunniest day. Some are white and as innocent-looking as cotton candy. Others are black and threatening. Maybe it’s time for us to bone up on meteorology, to be able to figure out what they mean and what’s in store for us.