Beha'alotcha: Out of Order

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

“And G-d spoke to Moshe in the Sinai desert in the second year of the Exodus from Egypt, in the first month” (Bamidbar 9:1). Pesach Sheni presents a second chance, the opportunity for those who were unable to bring the pesach sacrifice at the right time to do so. Pesach Sheni’s stories and laws, to which the above verse refers, are the chronological opening to the book of Bamidbar. Yet this verse appears only in chapter nine. Chapter one of Bamidbar opens with, “On the first day of the second month in the second year of the Exodus” (Bamidbar 1:1), recording later events.

Pesach Sheni is a most logical and beautiful opening to sefer Bamidbar. Sefer Shemot had ended on Rosh Chodesh Nissan with the dedication of the Mishkan a scant two weeks before Pesach. In addition to its chronological sequence, Pesach Sheni demonstrates the love for mitzvot of the people of Israel. Those who were ritually impure on the eve of Pesach requested an opportunity to make up for a lost mitzvah; “Why should we lose out and not be able to present G-d’s offering at the right time?” (Bamidbar 9:7).

Yet we have to wait until chapter nine to get to the “beginning”. Rashi, echoing a rabbinic tradition, one absent from the Biblical text, notes that it was only in this first year in the desert that the Jewish people offered the korban pesach. The Torah preferred, Rashi claims, to downplay this fact by burying the story of Pesach in the “back pages”, where it presumably would be less noticeable and less embarrassing to the Jewish people.

This comment is rather difficult, to say the least. The Torah is not a book of apologetics, defending the Jewish people at every turn. It is a guidebook for life and must expound the negative as well as the positive so we may derive the appropriate lessons from each. Why try to hide the mistakes of the Jewish people?

Furthermore, rather than obscuring, Rashi has actually highlighted the fact that the Jewish people neglected this mitzvah. Had sefer Bamidbar begun with this story of Pesach Sheni, there would be little reason to assume that this was a one-time event. Save for the first and last year, the Torah is silent regarding the activities in the desert. And even had we come to the conclusion that they did not offer further sacrifices, would we see that as a great failing? Considering their food fell from heaven, can one expect that they would have millions of lambs to offer for the korban pesach?

Most perplexing is the entire thrust of the comment. In full detail, sefer Bamidbar clearly notes how time and time again the Jewish people disregarded the word of G-d, how they complained at every opportunity (and then some). In the hierarchy of sins in the desert, not bringing the korban pesach was the least of their misdeeds.

The korban pesach symbolizes the great faith of the Jewish people. They publicly slaughtered a god of Egypt, courageously putting the blood on their doorposts in an act of defiance towards their taskmasters. G-d Himself—“I and not an angel, I and not a seraf, I and not a messenger, I am the One and no one else”—came to save us. Alas, we could not maintain such a standard.

The korban pesach represents the supernatural, the hand of G-d miraculously protecting us while we remain safely inside our homes. The Jewish people rejected such a close relationship with G-d, preferring to live life within a natural framework (see the Netziv’s introduction to sefer Bamidbar). They were afraid of the ongoing presence of G-d, of constantly having to be on their best behaviour, fearful that they could not bear the closeness of the Divine Presence. Slowly, the Jews were to be weaned from a life of total dependence on G-d to one in which G-d would have to be discovered, His presence obvious only to those who sought it. It is, perhaps, this “shame” of rejection of G-d’s constant closeness which is the basis of Rashi’s comment.

It is precisely because the Jewish people rejected the supernatural life that sefer Bamidbar begins with the taking of a proper census as we prepared for military conquest. The Jewish nation would live within the laws of nature, no longer relying on miracles to sustain them; thus, the need for spies to be sent to the Land of Israel on a fact-finding mission. Tragically the nation, saddled by doubt and lacking initiative, failed to display the minimum faith and courage necessary—even within the natural order—to conquer the land.

Sefer Bamidbar is the tragic story of the failure of the generation that left Egypt to complete their designated mission. They were unable to place their complete trust in G-d. Yet Bamidbar ends with the seeds of redemption. It recounts the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad and their desire for a portion of the Land of Israel.

“Tzelofchad’s daughters did exactly as G-d had commanded Moshe” (Bamidbar 36:10). May we merit following in their footsteps.