Parshat Beha’alotecha: The Pesach Sacrifice Offered in the First Year of Bnai Yisrael’s Travels

And Bnai Yisrael should prepare the Pesach offering in its time. (BeMidbar 9:2)

Bnai Yisrael completed the first year of their travels in the wilderness. Hashem commanded the nation to observe the Pesach celebration on the anniversary of the exodus from Egypt. Our Sages explain that during the forty years that Bnai Yisrael traveled in the wilderness they only offered the Pesach sacrifice on this occasion. The remaining years the sacrifice was not offered.[1] Why was that commandment to offer the Pesach not observed during the subsequent years of their journey and why was the commandment observed during the first year?

Nachmanides raises an additional question. The commandment to offer the Pesach is one of the mitzvot of the Torah. These commandments are to be performed in every generation. Why did Hashem command Bnai Yisrael to offer the Pesach on the first anniversary of the Exodus? This is one of the mitzvot that the people accepted at Sinai. No additional command should be needed!

In response to Nachmanides’ above question, he explains that the permanent mitzvah of offering the Pesach took effect only after Bnai Yisrael entered the Land of Israel. This commandment did not apply during the travels in the wilderness. Therefore, offering of the Pesach on this first anniversary required a special commandment.[2] However, Nachmanides’ answer raises a new question: Why did the permanent mitzvah to offer the Pesach not come into effect until the land was entered? Nachmanides does not comment on this issue. However, there is an obvious explanation. The Pesach sacrifice commemorates the redemption from Egypt. This redemption was not completed with the departure from Egypt. The process of redemption included the receiving of the Torah and the entry into Israel.[3] At the first anniversary of the Exodus, the Torah had been received at Sinai. However, the people had not yet entered the Land of Israel. The process of redemption was not complete. Therefore, the permanent mitzvah of offering the Pesach could not take effect. For this reason a special commandment was needed to legislate the offering of the Pesach.

We must now return to our original questions. Our questions were: Why was the Pesach not offered after the first year of Bani Yisrael’s sojourn in wilderness and why was it offered the first year? According to Nachmanides, the first question is easily answered. The nation only became obligated to annually offer the Pesach after entering the land. During the travels in the wilderness they were not subject to this mitzvah. However, our second question still requires a response. Why was the first year different from these subsequent years? Why was the nation provided with a special commandment to offer the sacrifice the first year of their journey? In other words, the Pesach could only be offered in the wilderness in response to a special commandment. This commandment was issued during the first year in the wilderness. It was not re-issued the remaining forty years. Why did Hashem not re-issue this special command the remaining years of the travels?

In order to answer this question we must consider subsequent events. Originally, Bnai Yisrael was to enter the land of Israel during this second year. The nation was to be in Israel at the third anniversary of the exodus. The permanent mitzvah of offering the Pesach would then apply. In short, had this original plan been followed the offering of the Pesach would have taken place on each anniversary of the Exodus. There would not have been an interruption.

Why did Hashem abandon this plan? The nation sent spies to scout the land. They returned with a discouraging report. The spies questioned the ability of Bnai Yisrael to conquer the nations occupying Israel. The people became fearful and refused to proceed. They were punished. The nation was condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years. Conquest was postponed. The process of redemption was suspended.

Let us return to our question. Why did Hashem not re-issue the command to observe the Pesach sacrifice during the forty years of wandering? As we have explained, the Pesach offering reflects redemption. During the wandering, redemption was not complete. A special command was required for this period. However, this special command was very similar to the permanent command. In both commands the Pesach offering reflected and recognized the redemption. The Pesach of the permanent mitzvah recognized a redemption that was complete. The special mitzvah related to redemption that was an on-going process.

During this period of wandering the process of redemption was suspended. The redemption was not complete. Neither was the process on-going. Therefore, the permanent command and the special command were not appropriate for this period.

The Significance of the Passages 12:35-36 in Sefer BeMidbar

And when the Ark went forth Moshe said: “Arise, Hashem and disperse Your enemies. And those that hate You will flee from before You.” And when it came to rest he said, “Return, Hashem to the myriads of the thousand of Israel.” (BeMidbar 12:35-36)

In a Torah scroll these two pesukim are set apart from the preceding and following passages. An inverted Hebrew letter nun appears before the passages. The same inverted letter follows the passages. Why are these passages set apart? The Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat, explains that these passages are regarded as a separate book of the Torah. They are set apart to indicate this special status.[4]

This explanation only raises an additional question. Why are these passages given the status of a separate book of the Torah? There are various responses to this issue. Many of the answers assume that the Torah is attributing some special significance to the content of the passages. However, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin Zt”l (Netziv) offers another approach. Netziv bases his explanation upon a discussion in Tractate Shabbat. The Talmud comments that the Torah is not actually composed of five books. It is composed of seven. Beresheit, Shemot VaYikra and Devarim are each counted as single books – contributing four of the total seven books. However, BeMidbar is counted as three books. This is because our pesukim compose a separate book. This two-passage book divides BeMidbar into two additional books. The section preceding our passages is one book. Our pesukim constitute a second book. The section following our passages is a third book.[5]

Netziv explains that our passages are not set apart because of their unique content. They are set apart in order to divide Sefer BeMidbar into two separate parts. This break is designed to contrast the first portion of the sefer with the material that will follow the break. What is this contrast?

Netziv explains that the first part of the sefer depicts the close relationship between Hashem and His nation. The sefer begins with a detailed description of the encampment in the wilderness. The various tribes camped around the Mishcan – the Tabernacle. The influence of Hashem was manifest in the Mishcan. Hashem was among the people. Also, the inauguration of the Mishcan is described.

The mitzvah of sotah that is related in the previous parasha captures this relationship. This test of a suspected adulteress relies on the intervention of Hashem. The woman is given a mixture to drink. This mixture is harmless. However, if the woman is guilty of adultery, Hashem will perform a miracle. The mixture will kill the woman. This entire concept assumes a remarkably close relationship between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael.

The latter section of the sefer depicts a different relationship. The nation begins to complain against Hashem. They send spies to study the Land of Israel. The nation refuses to enter the land. Korach and his followers rebel. As the nation removes itself from Hashem, He responds. He distances Himself from His people. In response to the nation’s refusal to ender the land, He condemns the generation to death in the wilderness. According to our Sages, their punishment also included the eventual exile of the nation from the Land of Israel. Various other punishments are depicted, throughout the latter half of the sefer.

We can now define the contrast contained in Sefer BeMidbar. The nation entered the wilderness with a unique closeness to Hashem. The sefer contrasts this intimacy with the more distant relationship that developed in the course of the sojourn in the wilderness. Our pesukim are the dividing point between these two relationships.

We can now understand the reason Sefer BeMidbar is characterized as a single book and as three separate books. It can be described as three books because our pesukim divide the first portion of the sefer from the latter portion. These two portions describe very different relationships between Hashem and His nation. On this basis the opening and closing sections can be regarded as separate books divided by a third intervening book.

BeMidbar can also be described as a single book. It is designed to express contrast. The contrast is created through including the two relationships in a single book. From this perspective, BeMidbar deserves to be regarded as a single book. [6]

The Prohibition against Lashon Ha’ra and a Strategy for Addressing the Behavior

And Miryam and Aharon spoke about Moshe regarding the beautiful woman he had married – for he had married a beautiful woman. (BeMidbar 12:1)

The above pasuk tells us that Miryam and Aharon spoke about their brother Moshe. The Torah does not provide many details regarding the specific conversation that took place between Miryam and Aharo, but our Sages provide some details. They explain that Miryam initiated the conversation. Aharon participated by listening. Miryam told Aharon that she understood from Moshe’s wife – Tziporah – that Moshe was not longer intimate with her.[7] Miryam and Aharon found this astounding. They too were prophets. Yet, they had not abandoned intimacy with their spouses.[8] By engaging in this conversation, Miryam and Aharon violated the prohibition of lashon hara – speaking in a derogatory manner about another person.

The Torah explains that as a result of this sin, Miryam was stricken with tzara’at. Tzara’at is a skin disease described in Sefer VaYikra. From the account in Sefer VaYikra it is apparent that tzara’at is a punishment. However, it is not clear from that account what sin precipitates this punishment. Based on this incident in our parasha, it is clear that lashon hara is one of the sins that results in tzara’at.

The connection between tzara’at and lashon hara is also indicated by another set of passages. In Sefer Devarim the Torah tells us to carefully follow the directions of the kohen in the diagnosis and treatment of tzara’at. Then the Torah further admonishes us to remember the incident of Miryam.[9] According to our Sages, the message is that to avoid tzara’at we must refrain from the behavior of Miryam. In other words, one must avoid lashon hara.[10]

All behaviors that are prohibited or required by the Torah are included in one of the 613 mitzvot. What mitzvah prohibits speaking lashon hara? In order to answer this question, we must first define our terms. Maimonides in his code of halachah – the Mishne Torah – in Hilchot Dey’ot explains that lashon hara is one type of prohibited speech. It is not the only form or speech about others that is prohibited. There are three types of speech that are prohibited. The first is rechilut. This is gossip. It need not be negative. It is merely the act of discussing someone’s affairs with a third party. Lashon hara is a special case of rechilut. It is negative gossip; speaking in a disparaging manner about someone. However, there is one interesting qualification that must be met in order for this prohibition to be violated. Lashon hara involves imparting disparaging information that is true. Lashon hara does not include making up outright lies. Spreading disparaging, false rumors is motzi shem ra. In short, gossip is rechilut; lashon hara is speaking about someone in a disparaging manner – albeit that the statement is true. Spreading false, disparaging rumors is motzi shem ra.[11] We can now identify the mitzvah violated by lashon hara. According to Maimonides no mitzvah prohibits specifically lashon hara. Instead, the Torah prohibits rechilut and this includes the special case of lashon hara.

Nachmanides disagrees with Maimonides. He insists that there is a specific mitzvah prohibiting lashon hara. Nachmanides argues that our Sages regarded lashon hara as a serious sin. They went so far as to compare lashon hara to the spilling of blood.[12] It is incomprehensible that there is no specific command prohibiting the behavior! He adds that the Torah prescribes a very serious punishment to lashon hara – tzara’at. We would expect that this serious consequence would be in response to the violation of a specific commandment. He concludes that this specific mitzvah is derived from our parasha and the Torah’s latter admonition – in Sefer Devarim – to guard ourselves from tzara’at and to remember this experience of Miryam. The specific commandment is either a negative commandment communicated in the admonition to avoid tzara’at or a positive command contained in the admonition to remember the experience of Miryam.[13]

In summary, Maimonides and Nachmanides agree that lashon hara is prohibited. However, according to Maimonides, it is included in the general mitzvah prohibiting gossip. Nachmanides insists that there is a separate mitzvah that specifically prohibits lashon hara.

Let us take a moment to understand the basis of this argument. Each position seems to have its merit. It seems that Nachmanides’ argument is rather compelling. Lashon hara is a serious sin. Does it not make sense that it deserves its own mitzvah? How might Maimonides respond to this issue? However Maimonides’ position is also reasonable. Maimonides maintains that lashon hara is a form of gossip and is included in the general prohibition against gossip. What is so objectionable to including the prohibition against lashon hara in the more general mitzvah prohibiting rechilut?

It is clear that the Nachmanides’ basic premise is that lashon hara must be assessed in view of the damage and hurt that it causes. Our Sages compare the lashon hara to the spilling of blood. Clearly, they are evaluating lashon hara from the perspective of the destruction caused. From this perspective it does not make sense to compare lashon hara to innocent gossip. Gossip is inappropriate. But from the perspective of causing damage it is a very different activity than lashon hara. Unlike gossip, lashon hara is an explicit attack against a person’s reputation. It is not appropriate to include the damaging behavior of lashon hara in the general mitzvah prohibiting senseless gossip. Therefore, Nachmanides argues that lashon hara deserves its own mitzvah and should not be included in the general prohibition against rechilut.

So, why does Maimonides include lashon hara within the mitzvah prohibiting rechilut? It is important to note that Maimonides includes the laws of rechilut in the Hilchot Dey’ot section of the Mishne Torah. What is the subject matter of Hilchot Dayot? In this section of the Mishne Torah, Maimonides outlines the perimeters of general emotional and physical health. The inclusion of the mitzvah prohibiting rechilut in this section implies that engaging in gossip represents a self-destructive behavior. The person that engages in gossip is undermining his or her own emotional wellbeing. From this perspective, it is appropriate to include lashon hara within the mitzvah prohibiting all forms of gossip. All of these forms of gossip cause harm to one’s own emotional wellbeing.

We can now understand the dispute between Nachmanides and Maimonides. According to Nachmanides, the essential aspect of lashon hara is the harm caused to others. Therefore, lashon hara cannot be included in the general mitzvah prohibiting gossip. Maimonides maintains that essential component of lashon hara is the harm caused to oneself. From this perspective it is appropriate to include lashon hara in the general mitzvah prohibiting rechilut.

However, it must be noted that Maimonides does acknowledge that lashon hara is a special case of rechilut. This acknowledgement implies that the harm caused by lashon hara to one’s personal wellbeing is somewhat different from the harm generated by general rechilut. However, it is not clear from Maimonides’ comments exactly wherein the difference lies.

If we pursue this issue we will discover that Maimonides’ position provides an essential insight into the behavior of lashon hara. We notice that despite the widespread desire to curtail our engagement in lashon hara, this determination does not easily translate into an actual change in behavior. Why is this behavior so difficult to modify and correct? Part of the answer may lie in the traditional method used to address the problem. We notice that the most common method for addressing the problem of lashon hara is to read more about the gravity of the sin. Books about lashon hara are Judaic best-sellers. But it seems that in the long-run learning more about the specific laws of lashon hara and the gravity of the sin has limited impact on the behavior.

In fact, this outcome is not surprising. If a person wants to change one’s eating habits does one seriously think that reading diet books will foster this change? One who wishes to be less of a couch potato will probably not meet this challenge simply by reading about exercise. This reading may provide temporary inspiration. But in the long-run this approach does not usually lead to permanent results. Instead, it may be more helpful to identify and address the root source of the behavior. In the case of eating, perhaps one should consider why he or she overeats. What is the attraction? What function is food serving in the person’s life?

It makes sense that the same approach can be effective in approaching the problem of lashon hara. What causes us to engage in this behavior? Our Sages provide an amazing insight into this issue. They tell us the when we depreciate others we are really reflecting upon our own inadequacies.[14] In other words, we speak about others in order to deflect our attention – or the attention of others – from our own insecurities, failings and faults.

Let us consider this assertion more closely. We can all acknowledge that one of the greatest challenges we face in achieving personal growth is the need to critically evaluate our own attitudes and behaviors. The more deep-set a behavior or attitude, the more difficult it is to recognize and acknowledge. But this does not mean that we are not in some sense aware or our personal faults. We are frustrated with these imperfections and yet, we are unwilling to completely acknowledge them and confront them. How do we tend to deal with this frustration? Our Sages are suggesting that we “self-medicate.” We escape our frustration by transferring our attention to the shortcomings of others. Rather than focus on ourselves, we change the focus of our attention to the other person. We evaluate that person and dissect the person’s behaviors and attitudes with the precision that we should direct towards the more painful and difficult task of introspection.

This is the reason the Maimonides regards rechilut as a behavior that undermines our own personal health. We are diverting our attention from ourselves and attaching it to another person. Lashon hara is an extreme manifestation of this mechanism. Gossip is a simple diversion. In speaking lashon hara we are actually aware – at some level – of a personal deficiency. But rather than acknowledging our personal shortcoming, we focus our attention on this failing as manifested in someone else. In this manner, we actually engage in denial of our own faults.

This insight of our Sages suggests an approach to dealing with the urge to speak and participate in lashon hara and rechilut. The urge is apparently motivated by the presence of an awareness of some personal failing. But this awareness evokes an unhealthy response. We transfer our focus from ourselves to the other person. If this is correct, then each time we feel the urge to participate in lashon hara or rechilut, we need to respond with a question. What is bothering me about myself? What and I trying to avoid considering? Rather than allowing our attention to be diverted, we need to sharpen our focus on ourselves and allow for a moment of introspection.

This is not an easy solution to apply. But it seems to respond to the fundamental motivations behind lashon hara and rechilut. Perhaps, if we keep our Sages insight in mind, we will be better able to overcome the urge to participate in lashon hara and rechilut.

[1] Sifrei, Parshat BeHa’alotecha, Chapter 9.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 9:1.

[3] Sefer Shemot 6:6-8.

[4] Mesechet Shabbat 116a.

[5] Mesechet Shabbat 116a.

[6] Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv), Commentary Hamek Davar on Sefer BeMidbar, Introduction.

[7] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 12:1.

[8] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 12:2.

[9] Sefer Devarim 24:8-9.

[10] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 24:9.

[11] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Dey’ot 7:1-2.

[12] Mesechet Erechim 15b.

[13] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 24:9.

[14] Mesechet Kedushin 70b.