Wisdom has built her house, She has hewn her seven pillars. Proverbs 9:1
This is a peculiar statement from the book of Proverbs. Wisdom, often personified as a women, here is depicted as someone who cuts stone and creates structure.
Would it shock you to learn that the Rabbis read this verse, and think immediately about this week’s Torah portion?
Let’s look at the very beginning of what we read from the Torah this morning. The first two verses should sound familiar – the first is the verse we sing before we take the Torah scroll out of the ark, and second one we sing right when we put the Torah away. These two verses are together here as a small literary unit, bracketed by two inverted Hebrew letter nuns, and this is how it appears in the Torah scroll as well. They are part of the scribal tradition of the Sefer Torah, and without them, the scroll is not kosher. There is no other punctuation like this in the Sefer Torah, and we can assume that these two verses are special, and that their location is also significant.
There is a sugya/section in the Talmud (Shabbat 116a) where the rabbis discuss them:
The Rabbis taught: When the ark would travel, Moses would say… God made signs before and after this section to teach that this is not its proper place. Rabbi says this is not the reason for the signs, but rather this is an important book by itself, as Rabbi Sh’muel bar Nachman says in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: She [wisdom] has hewn her seven pillars. These are the seven book of the Torah. Who teaches this? This is like the teaching of Rabbi, who says that in the future this section will be removed and written in its proper place. So why is it written here? To separate the first set of tribulations from the second set of tribulations.
What are the rabbis saying? These two verses constitute their own book of the Torah, which means that the book of Bamidbar is actually composed of three books: Bamidbar up to these two verses, these two verses and the rest of Bamidbar. So it is not the Five Books of Moses, but the Seven Books of Moses!
How is Bamidbar up to now different from Bamidbar after this point?
If Breisheet is all about God’s choice of Avraham, and Shemot all about God’s redemption of B’nai Yisrael from slavery, and Vayikra all about Kedusha/Holiness in the Mishkan and in the land, then Bamidbar has been all about getting ready to enter the Promised Land.
So far, B’nai Yisrael has:
- Organized and counted their army.
- Placed the Mishkan in the center of the camp.
- The national leaders participated in its dedication ceremony.
- The Levites have been appointed the spiritual leaders of the people up to this point.
- The nation has celebrated Pesach for the second time.
- The people have received final instructions on how and when the camp is to travel.
All indications are that B’nai Yisrael are headed right for the Promised Land. But they don’t. They don’t inherit the land, at least not for a long time. Things go horribly astray from this point onward in the “sixth” book of the Torah. Rebellion, betrayal, self-centeredness, gluttony and more. These two verses lie at the junction that divides Sefer Bamidbar into two distinct sections.
Chapters 1-10 are the preparation for the journey.
Chapters 11-25 are the actual journey.
The first section are their own book, since it forms a complete unit, describing all the preparations. The second section, also a complete unit, describes their failures and shortcomings of that generation.
These two verses not only divide these two sections from each other, but they also represent the ideal, the “what could have been.”
So what went wrong? What changed?
The Rabbis find a hint right in the section before these two demarcated verses.
“And they travelled from God’s mountain…”
In the midrash, the Rabbis comment that Israel “was like a child leaving school – running away, in the same manner B’nai Yisrael ran away from Har Sinai a three day distance, for they studied too much Torah at Har Sinai.”
They may have learned the laws in a technical sense, but had not yet internalized the meaning and the spirit of the laws. They looked forward to leaving Har Sinai, but were not looking forward to enter the Promised Land and applying those laws in the real world. They were educated and prepared, but not ready. They left the mountain with the wrong attitude.
So who is to blame?
We might point the finger at the students, the people themselves, but looking back at the school analogy, the “faculty” might share some of the burden as well.
In Beha’alotekha, we see the first signs of teacher burn-out. Right after our mini-book, we see the growing strain between Moses and the people. Not only do the people constantly complain to Moses, which they have been doing since the very beginning, even his own siblings, Miriam and Aaron, complain about him!
The scouts that Moses will send to check out the land will incite a national revolt that calls for a new leader to take the back to Egypt, and in the wake of that, Korach leads a rebellion that threatens to undermine both Moshe and Aaron.
So what went wrong?
Right away, we can see a crisis in the leadership. Right after they leave Mount Sinai, some of the people, the asafsuf, the riff-raff, complain about their cravings for meat. They are not hungry, but they are bored with the monotony of the food, the mannah. Listen to Moses’ plea to God:
And Moses said to the Eternal, “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant,’ to the land that You have promised on oath to their fathers? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people, when they whine before me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!”
This is not the Moses we are familiar with! The Moses we know always stepped into the breach to defend the people before God. When Moses defended the people after the Golden Calf, he said that if God were to wipe out the people, that God should wipe him out as well. There, Moses was willing to die to save the nation, but now he would rather die than lead the nation. Has Moses given up?
Could it be that Moses acted in an improper manner? Is the greatest prophet of all time giving up? Is Moses no longer fit to lead the people?
To say yes would be controversial and maybe even blasphemous, but to say no would seem to be naive!
Perhaps the reason for the change is the motive behind the people’s complaints. Despite the serious nature of the crime of the Golden Calf, the motive behind it was understandable. For many commentators, B’nai Yisrael’s desire, misguided it may have been, was to fill the gap left by Moses while up on the mountain. Here, with the sin of those who are craving meat, it seems to be a totally physical uncontrollable lust for food.
Helping the people understand a new relationship with God and avoiding idolatry was something that Moses was willing to undertake and go toe to toe with God over. But after this, Moses simply gives up. How could the people who saw what they have seen, stood at Sinai, lived there for a year, possibly have become so focused on this level of mundane concern. Moses may be saying – I am a teacher, not a baby-sitter!
God’s reaction is instructive. Right away, God instructs Moses to assemble seventy elders to share Moses’ Ruach, his divine spirit, with them. Moses must now share his leadership with the elders, who may be able to lead the people more realistically with the type of crisis. Moses may be overqualified, maybe “too holy.” Ultimately, Moses does not lead the people into the Promised Land. Instead, Joshua is the one who possesses the qualities needed to lead the people, a more down to earth leader.
So what we do learn from Moses’ “failure”?
When we teach, and we all teach in some way, we must be mindful of who we are teaching, their physical, emotional and spiritual needs. When we learn, and we all learn in some way, we must be mindful of the potential of how much we can gain from our teachers.
As it says in Pirkei Avot: From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.