Parsha Pearls: Parshas Behaaloscha

The Exile of Yishmael
Don’t Ask For Unnecessary Miracles
Why Couldn’t Moshe Make the Menorah?
If We Join Them, They Will Be the Winners

And Moshe heard the people crying in families, each man at the door of his tent, and Hashem’s anger burned greatly, and in the eyes of Moshe it was bad. (11:10)

What is the significance of the words “in the eyes of Moshe it was bad”? If Hashem’s anger burned greatly, obviously it was bad! The Noam Elimelech explains this based on a Tosafos in Shabbos 12b. The Gemora says there that a person should not pray in Aramaic because the angels do not understand Aramaic and they will not bring his prayer before Hashem. Tosafos asks: Angels know even a person’s thoughts – how then could it be that they do not understand a prayer said in Aramaic? The commentators all struggle to explain how Tosafos knew that the angels know a person’s thoughts (see Gilyon Hashas). But the Noam Elimelech says that Tosafos did not mean that the angels know all of a person’s thoughts at all times, just the thoughts that go into his prayers. There are certain angels whose job it is to take the prayers up to the Holy One, blessed is He, and make from them a crown for Him. They must be able to distinguish between a proper prayer and one with improper thoughts, and for this they are given the ability to see the thoughts at the time of prayer. Furthermore, the mitzvos or aveiros a person does during the day all flavor his prayer, like spice gives flavor to a food, and the angels can detect those flavors, although they have no independent knowledge of the person’s mitzvos or aveiros.

When the people said, “We remember the fish that we used to eat in Egypt for free” (v. 5) on the surface they were only talking about fish, but in their minds they intended to complain about the marital prohibitions as well (see Yuma 75a). The rule is that Hashem does not punish a person for a bad thought, only for an action (Kiddushin 39b). According to the Noam Elimelech, this is because Hashem hands down punishment through a system called the Heavenly Court, in which accusing angels bring up a person’s sins. Angels cannot see thoughts, so a person is not punished for his thoughts. So at first the Jewish people were not punished for their complaint about “fish”. But then Moshe heard them crying, and he prayed for them; and since he, with his great level of understanding and prophecy, knew that they had in mind the complaint about the marital prohibitions, that thought accompanied his prayer. The angels then found out about the Jewish people’s hidden complaint, they launched an accusation against them, and Hashem was very angry. “And in the eyes of Moshe it was bad” – he felt bad that he had caused this accusation through his prayer.

The Noam Elimelech writes that he once had a discussion with someone who brought proof that the angels know everything from the story of Yishmoel (Bereishis 21:17 with Rashi). When Yishmoel was dying of thirst, the angels said to Hashem, “How can You save him, when his descendants are going to kill Your children?” Hashem replied, “I judge him only based on what he is right now.” If the angels know even the far future, certainly they know a person’s thoughts. Reb Elimelech replied that there too, the angels only gathered their information from a prayer. In this case, it was the prayer of Avraham Avinu, “If only Yishmoel would live before You!” (Bereishis 17:18) Avraham Avinu was a prophet and was surely aware of what Yishmoel’s descendants would do to the Jews. But he asked Hashem to keep Yishmoel alive because he knew it would be better for the Jews to suffer in exile under Yishmoel than to suffer in Gehinom. When he prayed for Yishmoel, his prayer contained the thought that although Yishmoel would do evil in the future, it was in the Jews’ best interest to keep him alive. The angels saw this thought, and that is how they knew Yishmoel’s future.

The story of Avraham choosing exile for his children is told in the Midrash: “Hashem showed Avraham four things: Gehinom, the exiles, the giving of the Torah and the Temple. He said to him, ‘As long as your descendants are busy with the last two, they will be spared from the first two. But if they leave the last two, they will get the first two. [Since the Temple will one day be destroyed, they will have to get one of the punishments.] Which punishment do you choose for them?’ Rabbi Chanina bar Papa said: Avraham chose the exiles. Rabbi Yudan, Rabbi Idi and Rabbi Chama bar Chanina said: Avraham chose Gehinom, but Hashem chose for him the exiles. According to the opinion that Avraham himself chose the exiles, we can explain the verse (Devarim 32:30), ‘How can one [gentile] pursue a thousand [Jews], or two pursue ten thousand, if not that their rock had sold them; Hashem gave them over.’ ‘Their rock had sold them’ – this means Avraham, ‘and Hashem gave them over’ – this teaches that Hashem agreed to Avraham’s choice. Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rabbi Acha: Avraham was sitting and thinking all that day: ‘What should I choose, Gehinom or exile?’ Said the Holy One, blessed is He, to him, ‘Avraham! Throw away that coin [of Gehinom]!’” (Bereishis Rabba 44:21)

But the Noam Elimelech has added an important fact: that among the exiles Avraham chose was the exile of Yishmoel – that the Jewish people would one day live under the domination of Yishmoel’s descendants. Avraham wanted this for his children because he knew that otherwise, they would have to endure punishment in Gehinom.

This exile of Yishmoel is also mentioned by the Maharsha in Bava Basra 73b. The Gemora says: “Rabbah Bar Bar Chana said: I saw a frog as big as the city Akra Hegronia, which has sixty houses. A snake came and swallowed it, and then a female raven came and swallowed the snake, and it went up and sat in a tree. Imagine how strong that tree must have been!” The Maharsha explains that just as Daniel was shown the successive world empires in the form of wild animals, so too Rabbah Bar Bar Chana was shown a vision of animals as a metaphor for the empires that would rule from the Second Temple until the coming of Moshiach. The frog symbolizes Macedonia and Greece, the snake is Rome, and the female raven is Yishmoel. The raven is an unclean bird, and it was female to symbolize the fact that Yishmoel came from a non-Jewish mother, Hagar. “The raven went up and sat in a tree” means that Yishmoel went up and conquered Eretz Yisroel and lived there, based on the merit of his father Avraham (a tzaddik is compared to a tree – see Bamidbar 13:20) to whom Hashem promised to make Yishmoel a great nation (Bereishis 17:20). Imagine how great the merit of Avraham Avinu must have been, for Yishmoel controls Eretz Yisroel and many other lands until the time of the redemption!

The Zohar (Shemos 32a, end of Va’eira) also speaks of Yishmoel’s domination over Eretz Yisroel: “The angel of Yishmoel stood for four hundred years before the Holy One, blessed is He, and asked: Does someone who is circumcised have a share in Your Name? He said to him: Yes. He said to him: But Yishmoel is circumcised – why does he have no share in Your Name like Yitzchok? He said to him: This one was circumcised properly and this one improperly. Furthermore, these cling to Me properly, on the eighth day, but these are far from Me for many days. He said to him: Even so, since he is circumcised, should he not get some reward? (Woe to the day Yishmoel was born in the world and was circumcised!) What did the Holy One, blessed is He, do? He distanced the children of Yishmoel from clinging to Above, and gave them a portion below in the Holy Land because of their circumcision. The children of Yishmoel are destined to rule over the Holy Land for a long time, when it is empty of all, just as their circumcision is empty, not complete (i.e. without p’riah). And they will prevent the children of Israel from returning to their place, until that merit of Yishmoel is used up.” Let us accept the decree of exile and wait patiently for that time to come!

And Moshe said: “The people in whose midst I am numbers six hundred thousand footmen, and You said, ‘Meat I will give them and they will eat a month of days.’ Will sheep and cattle be slaughtered for them and be enough for them, or will all the fish of the sea be gathered for them and be enough for them?” And Hashem said to Moshe: “Will the hand of Hashem be short? Now you will see if My word happens to you or not.” (11:21-23)

Rashi quotes from the Midrash a dispute between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon. Rabbi Akiva understands these verses literally: Moshe doubted the ability of G-d to provide meat. Rabbi Shimon says that Moshe was asking, “How can you provide all this food to the people and then kill them?” G-d answered, “Let them and a hundred like them perish, but let no one say that My hand is short and unable to provide.”

Both opinions are difficult to understand. According to Rabbi Akiva, how could Moshe, the greatest prophet who ever lived, doubt G-d’s ability to provide, especially after all the miracles he had witnessed? And according to Rabbi Shimon, why didn’t G-d answer Moshe’s prayer and provide the food without killing the people? Also, how does Rabbi Shimon’s explanation fit into the words of the Torah?

The Maharal in Gur Aryeh explains that certainly, G-d could make a miracle and provide meat for the people. But G-d does not like to make changes in the order of creation, and He is angry with those who request such changes. We see this in the Gemara (Shabbos 53b) where the story is told of a man whose wife died and left him with a small nursing baby. The man had no money to hire a wet nurse. Miraculously, the man grew nipples and nursed his baby. Abaye said, “How deficient was this man! For the laws of creation were changed on his account.” Similarly, in Taanis 24a we find that the son of Rabbi Yosi of Yukras was punished for making a fig tree miraculously produce fruits. In Taanis 24b Rava was punished for successfully praying for rain during the summer. If this is true even of righteous people who request miracles, all the more so for the Israelites who complained for meat, expressing ingratitude to G-d for taking them out of Egyptian bondage and providing them with food in the desert (11:4-6).

Therefore Moshe said, “Why should you provide meat in a miraculous way, which will then result in punishment for the people for requesting a miracle? Why not provide it naturally – through gathering sheep, cattle or fish from the sea – and avoid the punishment?” G-d replied, “If I give it through natural means, they will say that My hand is short and cannot provide miraculously. Better that they should be punished and no one should doubt My power.”

This is Rabbi Shimon’s explanation. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, saw it the opposite way. G-d makes miracles in order to bestow kindness or to inflict punishment. But here, G-d had told Moshe that the people would suffer from eating the meat (v. 20), so Moshe reasoned that this was not to be a miracle; the meat would come naturally, through sheep, cattle or fish. So he said to G-d, “I do not doubt that You can make a miracle, but how can You provide so much meat through natural means?” G-d said, “Now you will see if My word happens to you or not.” The word “happens” is used here to indicate that the meat would come through natural means, as if it just happened.

According to this, we could answer another question. Moshe surely warned the Israelites that they would be punished for eating the quail, as G-d had told him. Why then did the people eat? The answer is that according to Rabbi Shimon the quail came in a miraculous way, and even according to Rabbi Akiva who called it natural, it was still more miraculous than natural. When the people saw that G-d had obviously sent this flock of quail, they reasoned that He had forgiven them for their complaints, so they ate. They realized their mistake immediately, for they began to die while the meat was still stuck between their teeth (v. 33).

This story has two important lessons for our time: 1) G-d’s anger is aroused when the wicked request miracles; 2) When the wicked do receive their miracles or near-miracles, many good people mistakenly think that this means that G-d is no longer angry and will not punish them.

There is one important difference between then and now. When the Jews were in the wilderness, G-d dealt with them openly, not hiding His face, so the punishment came right away, while the meat was still between their teeth. Today, however, we live in an era when G-d’s presence is hidden, and His actions are harder to discern. This unfortunately adds to the confusion even more. (Al Hageulah V’al Hatemurah, Chapter 27)

Speak to Aharon and say to him: When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall shine toward the face of the menorah… And this was the work of the menorah: pounded of gold, to its base, to its flower it was pounded; like the vision that Hashem showed Moshe, so he made the menorah.” (8:2,4)

Rashi says (here and on Shemos 25:31) that Moshe had difficulty understanding how to make the menorah, until finally Hashem told him, “Take a talent of gold and throw it into the fire.” And Hashem Himself made the menorah. Therefore it says, “So He made the menorah,” referring to Hashem. We must ask: What was so hard to understand? After all, Hashem showed him a vision of exactly how the menorah had to look. And in the Second Temple, a menorah was made by human hands (Avodah Zarah 43b), so it is certainly possible to do.

The Midrash Rabbah (15:6, brought by Rashi on v. 2) says that when the princes of all the tribes but Levi brought their offerings, Aharon said, “Woe is to me! Perhaps due to my sins the Holy One, blessed is He, is not accepting the tribe of Levi.” Said the Holy One, blessed is He, to Moshe, “Go and say to Aharon: do not fear. You are destined for something greater than this. Sacrifices will only be offered as long as the Temple exists, but the lamps will shine forever toward the face of the menorah.” The statement is hard to understand. Seemingly, just as the sacrifices stopped with the destruction of the Temple, the menorah stopped as well.

The answer is that the Temple was destroyed at the end of the day (Taanis 29a), just after the lighting of the menorah, and the menorah was then hidden from the eyes of the Romans. Still burning, the menorah was placed in a secret underground chamber, where it awaits the redemption and the building of the Third Temple. One should not find this idea so surprising, for we find (Tanchuma Tetzaveh 3) that the menorah sometimes burned miraculously for long periods of time, such as a year or more.

This is the meaning of the Tanchuma (Tetzaveh 7): “The Holy One, blessed is He, said to Moshe: Say to the children of Israel: My children, in this world you needed to light the lamps in the Temple, but in the World to Come, in the merit of that lamp, I will bring the king moshiach, who is compared to a lamp, as it says, ‘I have prepared a lamp for my moshiach’ (Tehillim 132:17).” The “merit of that lamp” refers to the hidden menorah, still burning from its last lighting throughout the duration of the exile.

Moshe knew that the menorah would play a role in the final redemption, and that is why he could not make it. Physically he was able, but he knew that there is a fundamental difference between the redemption and all other areas of life. When it comes to making a living, maintaining health and protecting oneself, a person is permitted and indeed expected to make his own efforts, and then rely on Hashem to grant him success. But in matters relating to the geulah, Jews are strictly forbidden under oath to take any action (other than prayer, teshuva and good deeds). The geulah is strictly Hashem’s domain.

Therefore, at first Hashem commanded Moshe to work on the menorah in order to reward him for his efforts to understand it. Shemos 25:31 begins with the word “v’asisa” – and you shall make. But in the end, as Moshe knew, Hashem did not want the menorah to be made by human hands, but rather by Hashem Himself, since the redemption depends on it. That is why the Torah, later in that same verse, says “teiaseh” – it shall be made without your effort (Divrei Yoel v. 7, pp. 254-257).

This is why the angel showed the prophet Zechariah a vision of the menorah, as we read in the Haftarah, and said: “Not by might and not by power, but by My spirit, said Hashem Tzevaos” (Zechariah 4:6). The menorah, made by Hashem Himself, symbolizes the fact that the redemption will come through Hashem’s spirit, not through any human effort.

And he [Yisro] said to him, “I will not go [with the Jewish people], but rather to my land and my birthplace I will go.” And he [Moshe] said, “Please do not leave us, for you knew our grace in the desert.” (10:29-30)

The Yalkut Shimoni explains: Moshe said to Yisro: You think you are increasing Hashem’s honor, but you are only decreasing it. How many converts and slaves will you bring under the wings of the Shechinah? You saw the grace that Hashem gave us in Egypt, as it says, “Hashem put the grace of the people in the eyes of Egypt” (Shemos 12:36).

The Zayis Raanan explains that Yisro wanted to go back to his country in order to convert his people. Moshe said: You will not bring them under the wings of the Shechinah that way, but rather by coming with us.

How could Yisro have thought that he would be able to convert his people to Judaism? The people of Midyan hated him; they ostracized him because he abandoned their idols (Rashi on Shemos 2:16). Why would they listen to him? Moreover, the posuk says “you knew our grace in the desert” and the Yalkut interprets this as referring to the grace Hashem gave them in Egypt. If so, it should have said “you knew our grace in Egypt.”

The answer is that Yisro planned to go back to Midyan and befriend the Midyanites, adopting their lifestyle so that they would be more likely to listen to him and convert to Judaism. Moshe told him, “That is not the way. If you join them and become like them, it is they who will influence you and not vice versa. Rather, stay with us, live a Jewish lifestyle and whoever truly wants to be a Jew will follow you here.”

As proof of the danger of joining a society of wicked people, Moshe said, “You saw the grace Hashem gave us in Egypt. We lived there for 210 years, and the Egyptians made our lives very difficult. Hashem could easily have given us grace in their eyes much earlier, so that they would have treated us better. But then there would have been a danger that we would assimilate into their wicked culture. Therefore, he delayed the grace until the last possible moment, when we were about to depart into the desert.”

This explains the order of the verses in Parshas Bo: “And the people took their dough before it had risen, their leftovers bound up in their garments upon their shoulders. And the Children of Israel did as Moshe commanded, and they asked from the Egyptians vessels of silver, vessels of gold and clothing. And Hashem gave the grace of the people in the eyes of Egypt and they lent them, and they emptied out Egypt” (Shemos 12:34-36). Seemingly hoisting the unrisen dough on their shoulders should have been the last thing they did before leaving. And Hashem should have given them grace before they asked for the vessels. But according to the above, the Torah is making a point of saying that Hashem giving them grace in the eyes of Egypt was the very last thing that happened before they left. Since their minds were on the desert, it was considered as if they were already in the desert, just as a person’s bread determines his place of rest for Shabbos (Ramban Eiruvin 17b). That is why Moshe said to Yisro, “You knew our grace in the desert.” (Divrei Yoel v. 7 pp. 273-4)

Yisro’s plan to convert his countrymen by blending into their society is reminiscent of those groups today who take part in the Zionist government with the aim of making the people more religious. All anti-Zionists agree that participation in the Zionist elections and serving in their government are serious sins. Yet at the time the state was established, certain anti-Zionist rabbis argued that these sins should be permitted because the end justifies the means. They feared that without religious participation in the government, the Torah lifestyle could not continue under the Zionist government. Their slogan was “aveirah lishmah” – commit a sin for a noble purpose.

Nowadays, even they have admitted that observant Jews do not need representation in government to exist. Those who are observant would stay observant even without the benefits they reap from the representation. Still, they continue to justify participation on the basis that they are helping the non-observant Jews stay closer to Judaism by keeping the state Jewish.

As the years go by and the religious population increases exponentially, this goal of bringing Yiddishkeit to the Jews of Eretz Yisroel seems more and more attainable. But now there arises a terrible question that may not have been foreseen by those advocating participation in the state. Establishing and maintaining a Jewish state is forbidden by the Gemara in the famous passage of the Three Oaths. Until now, we, observant Jews, could have considered ourselves exempt from punishment for this sin because it was not us but the secular Zionists who founded and ran the state. What will happen when the state becomes dominated by observant Jews? How will we deal with taking sole responsibility for that sin, which is not merely a sin but a total perversion of Hashem’s plan for Jewish history, exile and redemption?

The time is not so far off. According to recent data, Haredi Jews and Arabs together comprise 30% of the Israeli population. But among schoolchildren, they are close to 50%, and in another 30 years, the two groups will comprise 78% of schoolchildren.

Because of the higher birthrate among Arabs as opposed to secular Jews, the Arabs would soon overtake the Jews in the demographic race, were it not for the religious Jewish community with its high birthrate. A state with an Arab majority in the government would not be a Jewish state and would not violate the Three Oaths. Thus the religious Jews who participate in the government are literally keeping the state Jewish and in violation of the oaths.

It is time for us to ask, as Moshe Rabbeinu asked Yisro: who is influencing whom? We may succeed in making the state religious, but in the end, Zionism – the concept of preempting the geulah and ending the exile with our own power – will have triumphed. The Torah will have been changed forever. Is this what we want?