Parshat Beha’alotecha

Bamidbar 10:28-30 (Robert Alter, trans.)

And Moses said to Hobab [Yitro] son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’s father-in-law, “We are journeying to the place of which the LORD said to us, ‘It will I give to you.’ Come with us and we shall be good to you, for the LORD has spoken a good thing for Israel.” 


Bamidbar 11:1-11 (Robert Alter, trans.)

And the people became complainers of evil in the ears of the LORD, and the LORD heard and His wrath flared and the LORD’s fire burned against them and consumed along the edge of the camp. … And the riffraff that was in their midst felt a craving, and the Israelites, too, again wept and said, “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for free, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic And now our throats are dry. There is nothing save the manna before our eyes.” … And Moses heard the people weeping by its clans, every man at the entrance of his tent, and the LORD’s wrath flared fiercely, and in Moses’s eyes it was evil. And Moses said to the LORD, “Why have You done evil to Your servant, and why have I not found favor in Your eyes, to put burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive all this people …”


Robert Alter

riffraff: … derived from the verb ‘asaf, “to gather.” … There is a negative kind of “gathering” or assembly, the ragtag collection of ‘asafsuf that congregates in order to voice divisive gripes …

weeping by its clans: Throughout this episode, “weep” has the obvious sense of “complain,” but it is used instead of several possible biblical alternatives because it stresses the whining nature of the complaints.



Avivah Zornberg

In the book of Numbers the words tov and ra, good and evil, are used to express the subjective consciousness of “love” and “hate.” Moses’ eyes are trained on that good destination that beckons so alluringly. He is full of love. … Here begins the subjective narrative of an ambivalent people who, through a series of wilderness narratives, struggle with their own volatile relations with God, with Moses, and, ultimately, with themselves. …

Complaint and desire speak here. Indeed, it is striking that these sins are exclusively sins of speech. Nothing actually happens. But their complaints are “evil” (ra) in the ears of God, and their desire is “evil” in the eyes of Moses, who then complains to God about the “evil” that He has done to Moses. …

The intensified presence of God after Sinai makes demands that expose the people to the hazards of intimacy with the sacred. … A world visited by Revelation creates a combustible atmosphere for human complexity. …

the “riffraff” desired desire This cryptic expression is usually idiomatically translated, “were overwhelmed by desire.” But the object of their desire is at first unexplained; they simply, reflexively, “desire desire.” 

Desires … are a defense against the delight that is God. … The craving for bassar [physical pleasures] represents a visceral defense against that other mystical delight. 

[The] central, blissful, and perilous experience of nursing is also the central moment of Moses’ poetic understanding of his own relations with his people: 

And Moses said to God, “Why have You dealt ill [ra] with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of this people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a wet nurse [omen] carries an infant’ …” … His words paint himself as the nursing father, the omen: masculine figure with feminine womb and breast. … he frames his relation to his people as that of an omen: a fantasy figure of infinite constancy and compassion, merging self and other. In such a relation, he would indeed be an omen, a source of unbounded nurturance, of emunah, of trustworthiness. … Even as a fantasy, it is not viable.

The root a-m-n is used repeatedly, with its meanings of constancy, consistency, truth, faith, belief — and, most centrally, trust. Witnessing the wonders of God, the people would have no difficulty believing that these things are happening to them,  nor that God is at work in them. Their chronic crisis is one of trust — the conviction that God will fulfill His promises, that His past wonders express His reliable intention to see them through to their destination. What is at stake is not so much God’s power as His love. It is this basic distrust that marks the stories of the wilderness — especially the early stories that lead up to the Sin of the Spies. It is distrust that disrupts the momentum of the redemption narrative.


What is the difficulty of staying in the Sinai moment? Can you stay in that level of intense intimacy with God?

Why is it hard to trust God?

What might be the significance of a wet nurse, omen, for Moses? Recall that his mother abandons him, but then she is brought to the Pharaoh’s household to be his wet nurse.


Can you trust God, after God has left you as a slave in Egypt?

How do you understand the abandonment and then the redemption?