By Rabbi Ari Kahn
Sometimes – unexpectedly, despite the best plans, things go terribly wrong. Parashat B’haalothcha finds the Jews who left Egypt on the way to the Promised Land, but something goes awry, although it is difficult to place our finger on the precise problem or the exact moment it occurred.
The first ten chapters of the book of B’midbar seem focused and purposeful; the path from Sinai to Israel appears to be charted, and the trip should not be a long one. The Egyptians were vanquished long ago, and the skirmish with Amalek is also behind them. By this point, the people should be ready to take ownership of their ancestral homeland – through their own determination, coupled with Divine assistance.
Yet something goes terribly wrong: By chapter 11, the Jews seem to be slipping toward moral bankruptcy. They lust for food; they behave like heathen. What happened to the people who stood at Sinai? What happened to the nation that proclaimed in one voice, “Na’aseh V’nishmah” – ‘We will obey and eagerly listen to the word of God’?
A number of early Torah commentaries cite a midrashic teaching that describes the Israelites’ departure from Mount Sinai:
They left happily, like a young child running away from school; they said, ‘(Let us run) lest we receive more commandments.” (As cited in Ramban’s commentary to the Torah, Bamidbar 10:35)
A cynic might say that they had arrived at the mountain poised to accept Ten Commandments which would forever change their lives, and now, one year later, the number of commandments was in the hundreds - and constantly rising. At their first opportunity, they take off, happy to leave the mountain of law, happy to be free. This would explain their immediate obsession with mundane matters: They had had their fill of holiness.
In truth, this cynical description of the commandments is superficial, at best. The “Ten Commandments” are more accurately described as the “ten categories” of Jewish Law; the commandments that are enumerated subsequently are the particulars, the individual statutes that comprise each category, the nuts and bolts of Jewish practice that give substance to the categories and concepts we received at Mount Sinai. Nonetheless, the Midrash expresses the mindset of the people: They seem overwhelmed; inundated with holiness. Yes, they knew that “serving God on this mountain” was the reason they were liberated from Egypt in the first place. And yes, they knew what they had committed to when they had agreed to be ‘a holy nation and a kingdom of priests.’ It seems, though, that they had not anticipated or fully thought out the overwhelming degree to which holiness would dictate their lives. Now that they had begun to implement the commandments, holiness had become more of a burden than they had imagined it would be.
The scene painted by the Midrash of the Israelites’ flight from Mount Sinai poses a question that is just as relevant today: How are we supposed to walk away from Sinai? How do we take leave of any point of holiness, be it one demarcated by space or by time? How do we part from Shabbat, from holidays, from synagogues, or from the Land of Israel?
Perhaps the most disturbing element of the Midrash was the happiness they felt. Leaving holiness, despite the restrictions it places on us or the pressure we may feel to live up to its additional requirements, should be tinged with sadness, and not joy. Quite the opposite: The arrival of a holy day should bring us joy, and not the cessation of holiness. Often, our departure from a state of heightened holiness is unavoidable; all holidays must come to an end, just as every Shabbat must necessarily have a motzei Shabbat. Nonetheless, many of our customs aim to help us focus on the sadness we should feel as the holiness of the day ebbs away: Havdalah is designed to help us ease our way from the holiness of Shabbat and festivals back to weekday existence. Similarly, it is our custom to leave the synagogue (and the Western Wall) without turning our backs to the place of holiness, but rather to take at least three steps backward before fully disconnecting from the holiness that lies within. If we must leave, we do so with a degree of sadness or longing. Places or times of holiness should hold a dear and central place in our hearts.
Here, then, is when things began to slide off track: As the Israelites took leave of Mount Sinai, a place of immense holiness, they should have taken three steps back, to plant the holiness of that unique place and time deep in their hearts before turning around to face their next destination of holiness, the Land of Israel. Instead, they turned and ran from Sinai, ran away from the holiness, and became unworthy of the holiness that awaited them in Israel. Because they turned their backs, literally and figuratively, the Land of Israel slips further and further out of reach. The generation that ran away from the holiness of Mount Sinai was incapable of running towards the holiness of the Land of Israel. An entire generation would have to pass before they would ready to approach the Holy Land.