Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Parshat Behalotecha

The Incident at Tav'era

This week's parsha sees the first of a series of catastrophes that eventually led to Israel remaining in the wilderness for forty years.

The first incident was at Tav'era, the Burning, named because "the fire of the Lord had burned among them there" (Bemidbar 11:3). The story is only briefly recorded, with merely three pesukim devoted to it, and so it is difficult to understand what was going on.

"The people were looking to complain and it was evil in the ears of the Lord. The Lord heard and His anger flared, so a fire from the Lord burned among them, consuming the edges of the camp. The people cried out to Moshe; Moshe prayed to the Lord, and the fire died down. He named that place Tav'era…" (ibid 1-3).

We will focus on Rashi's commentary to investigate the events. First of all, let's ask some questions.

To begin with, what was the people's crime? It does not even actually seem that they did anything wrong. Furthermore, why does Moshe wait to pray only after the people cry out to him? Finally, why were the people only at the edges of the camp killed?

Rashi claims that the people did not really have anything to complain about, but they were looking for a pretext. The people were simply fed up. They had been in the wilderness for over a year, homeless, unsettled and traveling. They were cranky.

While this is not such a serious crime, God had previously warned of the consequences of Him living among the people: "if I go up into your midst for one moment, I will destroy you" (Shemot 33:5); even the slightest infringement could be disastrous.

So who was killed? The passuk states that it was those who were at the edges of the camp. This would explain why Moshe had to be told of what was going on. He resided near the Mishkan, the camp's epicenter and so was unaware of the death and destruction at the far reaches. As soon as the news reached him, he prayed and the deaths ceased.

However, Rashi adopts an alternative suggestion as to who died. He examines the Hebrew word for "edge" – "ketseh" - and relates it to "ketsineh" – the "distinguished". Why did the distinguished, i.e. leaders, deserve to die? Rashi does not explain here, but he does in Sefer Shemot.

At the Revelation at Sinai, God said: "Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and prostrate yourselves from afar" (Shemot 24:1). While on the mountain, Nadav, Avihu and the elders sinned: "gazed at the God of Israel" (ibid 10). Nevertheless, "upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand (i.e. execute)" (ibid 11).

According to Rashi, Nadav, Avihu and the elders all deserved to die, but God did not want Matan Torah to be remembered with death, so He stayed their execution until a later time.

Nadav and Avihu were consumed by God's fire at the Mishkan's dedication (VaYikra 10:2) while the elders were consumed by God's fire in this week's parsha, at Tav'era.

This interpretation allows us to understand the events in the following pesukim. God tells Moshe: "Assemble for Me seventy men of the elders of Israel" (Bemidbar 11:16) in order to assist Moshe in governing the people. This is strange, there are already elders! They already existed in Egypt and went up Mount Sinai with Moshe?

However, if we accept Rashi's explanation that it was the elders who died at Tav'era, then God's request for Moshe to select the elders is appropriate. Moshe is selecting a new group to replace the old group.


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