By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
June 22, 2002
It is the fortieth year since the Exodus.
And the Children of Israel, the whole congregation came into the
desert of Tzin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh; and Miriam
died there and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation,
and they gathered themselves against Moshe and Aharon. And the people contended
with Moshe and they spoke, saying, “If only we had perished in the perishing (BIGVA)
of our brethren before Hashem! And why did you bring the congregation of Hashem
to this desert that we and our animals should die there? And why did you bring
us up from Egypt? To bring us to this evil place? It is not a place of seed, or
figs, or vines, or pomegranates there is even no water to drink!” (Bamidbar
As long as Miriam was alive, says Rashi (quoting from Ta’anit 9a), the people
were provided, in her merit, with a well of water that followed them wherever
they went. Immediately upon Miriam’s death, however, the well vanishes. The
people are so frustrated by the lack of water that they envy their brethren who
are already dead:
If only we had perished in the perishing (BIGVA) of our brethren
The word BIGVA poses a grammatical problem that deserves our attention. The root
of the word is Gimmel-Vav-Ayin, which means “to perish.” BIGVA, it would seem,
is a form of the infinitive. The Hebrew infinitive does not only appear with the
prefix L’ (to); it can also have these prefixes:
• K’ (as, when)
• M’ (from)
• B’ (in)
• No prefix at all.
This form of the verb yields a meaning similar to a gerund in
English (a verb form used as a noun, usually ending in -ing). By this reasoning,
the word BIGVA should mean “when perishing,” with the resultant translation:
If only we had perished when our brethren perished before Hashem!
The people look back to the years of wandering, and wished that they had died at
any time during the previous forty years, rather than now.
The above is the translation of Targum Yonatan. Ibn Ezra, as well, accepts this
translation of BIGVA as an infinitive.
Rashi, however, finds fault with this rendering. He says that BIGVA cannot be an
infinitive. If we look back at last week’s parshah, we see the more accepted
form of the infinitive of this verb:
Whoever comes nearest to the Mishkan of Hashem will die. Are we
then completely delivered to perishing (LIGVO’A)? (17:28)
Rashi insists, based on this vocalization, that were the word in
our portion an infinitive, it should have read BIGVO’A.
Ibn Ezra seems to anticipate Rashi’s argument, by referring to the verb KISHKAV
(“when he lies”) in Melachim I 1:21, which has a similar vocalization as BIGVA.
Ibn Ezra seems to have selected this example because the verb SH-CH-V, in its
infinitive form, sometimes appears with the vocalization SH’CHAV (for example,
Bereishit 34:7) and other times with the vocalization SH’CHOV (for example,
Mishlei 6:10). Ibn Ezra seems to be saying that, like SH-CH-V, Gimmel-Vav-Ayin
has two infinitive forms, G’VO’A and G’VA.
Apparently, Rashi does not accept this, because there is no precedent in Tanach
for the vocalization G’VA as an infinitive. Instead, Rashi insists that BIGVOA
be understood as a noun, referring to the manner of perishing:
If only we had perished as our brethren perished before Hashem!
According to Rashi’s reading, the people are focusing on the way
their brethren died, namely, by the Divinely-decreed disease (Rashi calls it
dever) that took the lives of those who had left Egypt.
We are reminded that, during the forty years in the desert, after the sin of the
scouts, the people would dig their own graves on the night of the ninth of Av
and go to sleep in them. In the morning a number of them would be found dead.
Rashi alludes to the horror of digging one’s own grave, knowing that this night
may be one’s last. And yet, now the people say, after the forty years have
passed, that the horror of dying of thirst is still worse. As bad as the forty
years of dying by dever must have been, at least it was, as the people now say,
“before Hashem.” In their last moments they still sensed Hashem’s care and
involvement. But to suffer thirst is to feel abandoned by Hashem to the forces
of nature. Nothing could be more appalling, more crushing.
The people’s complaint
And why did you bring the congregation of Hashem to this desert that we and our
animals should die there? And why did you bring us up from Egypt? To bring us to
this evil place? It is not a place of seed, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates
there is even no water to drink!
refers to more than just the lack of water. The people are
afraid that when they will enter the land that Hashem has promised them, they
will be abandoned to the forces of nature, just like they feel they are now.
Therefore, Hashem instructs Moshe that He will provide the people with water,
not as He has in the past, but through Moshe’s speaking to the rock. The message
to the generation that was born in the desert is that times may have changed,
and the people will need to conquer and settle the land by their own efforts,
but Hashem’s Presence, in the form of prophecy, will continue to be in their
If we listen for the voice of Hashem, we will never feel abandoned.