Til We Speak Again

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17 Jul 2010

We left Egypt as a nation. Thus Mitzrayim was our womb, the place of our conception and gestation [Midrash Tehillim 114]:

R. Acha said in the name of R. Yonatan: What is meant by the term “a nation from within a nation”? Like someone who forcibly extricates the fetus from the womb .. so too God removed Bnei Yisrael from Egypt

In the midbar (desert) we developed from cradle to adulthood. The forty year span signifying our maturation [Devarim, 29:3-5]

Until this day, the Lord has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear. I led you through the desert for forty years [during which time] your garments did not wear out from upon you, nor did your shoes wear out from upon your feet. You neither ate bread, nor drank new wine or old wine, in order that you would know that I am the Lord

Yet, remarkably, we know very little of this cradle-adolescence period of Jewish nationhood; Certainly, most could recite the highlights [matan Torah, man, mishkan, water from a rock, part 1] and the lowlights [eigel hazahav, meraglim, quail, Korach, water from a rock – the sequel] but the complete picture of the 40 year experience is simply not detailed in the Torah save for a retrospective of journeys that appears in Parshas Masei. We don’t know of the Jews’ daily schedule, where their resources came from, nor the extent of their obligation in certain mitzvos [korban pesach, lulav-esrog, etc]. In a phrase, the Jewish midbar existence remains cloaked in a cloudy mystery.

Why? One may speculate that even the extraordinary midbar experience [the cloud protection, the man, the fresh clothing] became ordinary. There was not that much to say. We may also posit that the very fact that the extended midbar experience should not have been, plays a role in its diminished impact. For sans the sin of the spies, the 40 year stay would have been reduced to under two. It is this latter notion that Rashi summons in a most powerful way:

First, we cite the pesukim [2:14-17]

The time that [it took] us to go from Kadeish Barneia until we crossed the Zered stream was thirty-eight years, until the end of the entire generation, the men of war, from within the camp, as Hashem had sworn about them.. Hashem‘s plague, too, attacked them …When they had finished— all the men of war— to die out from among the people, Hashem addressed me, to say

Note the juxtaposition between the demise of the men of the dor hamidbar [who fell prey to the sin of the spies] and Hashem’s speaking to Moshe. It is a connection that the Talmud considers highly significant. The context: the Gemara’s attempt to uncover the significance of our least understood holiday on the Jewish calendar -the 15th of Av.

Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in the name of R. Johanan: It is the day on which the generation of the wilderness ceased to die out. For a Master said: So long as the generation of the wilderness continued to die out there was no Divine communication to Moses, as it is said, So it came to pass, when all the men of war were consumed and dead . . . that Hashem addressed me, to say [Only then] came the Divine communication ‘unto me’.

Apparently, it was not simply the decree’s conclusion that is the focus
(1); rather it was the reappearance of the Divine communication between Hashem and Moshe [and by extension Klal Yisrael] created this special Holiday(2) .

We may now return to our original question: Why does the Torah not speak extensively of the events that occupied 95% of Bnei yisrael’s desert sojourn? Perhaps, because those were years of excommunication and alienation from Hashem. Yes, the manna continues to fall and the clouds of glory remain, but for 38 years we were nizophin lifnei hamakom, estranged and banned before Hashem. Certainly that is a time better forgotten!

Rashi [Devarim, 2:16] cites our gemara and to him we shall return; but first let us raise an obvious factual problem on the Talmudic account.

Immediately after the Meraglim [spies] story, we encounter the Korach rebellion(3) . In the heat of the dispute, Moshe receives a command [15:19-23]

Korach assembled all the congregation against them at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord appeared before the entire congregation Hashem spoke to Moses and Aaron saying. “Dissociate yourselves from this congregation, and I will consume them in an instant. They fell on their faces and said, “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, if one man sins, shall You be angry with the whole congregation: Hashem spoke to Moses saying,…

Immediately following the Korach story, we also find several halachic obligations set forth very clearly from Hashem to Moshe to relate to Bnei Yisrael(4).

In all of these instances, Divine speech appears to be clearly articulated and does cease even during the ban period?! Such a clear and BIG question was not lost on Rashi, Rashbam and many other meforshim: Herein, a few solutions

1. Rashi [T’anis 30b ] addresses the issue. In his 2nd explanation he states: there are those that say [Moshe’s communication during this time] was in the form of a night vision with a lack of clarity.

2/3. Rashbam [Bava Basra 121b] in his 1st two explanations: if there was a need for speech, like the Korach story which followed the meraglim , he would speak via an angel or through the urim v’tumim [the breast plate lit up by the Divine name inside]

4. Rabbeinu Bechayei [Devarim, 2:16] for during this time he did not prophesy with an aspakloria hameira [utter clarity]

These 4 approaches resolve our question by finding during the 38 years midbar ban period an impaired level of communication between Moshe and Hashem – a notion that was intolerable for the Ben Yehoyada, who makes a remarkable comment:

Rashi writes that it was through a night image and Rashbam explains it was via an angel or through the Urim V’timim. In truth these words are not able to be said and are rejected from various statements of Chazal and from various verse in Parshas Korach and beyond – therefore these words certainly did not come from Rashi’s mouth – rather a mistaken student wrote them

One example of what bothered Ben Yehodaya emerges from our aforementioned Korach story. That scene required an immediate intervention and an apparent dialogue, precluding the solutions of the night vision, an angel or the urim v’tumim.

Ben Yehoyada thus returns to Rashbam’s 2nd approach, one which appears in our Rashi in a most beautiful formulation. It is a classic Rashi for the ages:

this was to teach that during the entire thirty-eight years that the Israelites were estranged, the [Divine] word was not uniquely with him as an expression of affection— face to face and with yishuv had’as. This teaches that the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, rests on the prophets only for the sake of Yisroel.(5)

According to Rashi, what changed during the ban period? In terms of clarity, nothing! That which need be said and done was related by Hashem to Moshe in the same luminescent pristine style that preceded the ban. But that was it! The intimate “unnecessary speech”, the Divine schmoozing if you will, the sense of panim-el-panim (face to face) that classically preceded and followed the Hashem-Moshe dialogue ceased.

Unquestionably, coordination and communication is an essential aspect of marriage. The mark of an experienced [or more precisely, duly chastened] spouse is cautionary speech: It sounds great, let me first check with my wife [husband?]. Similarly What bills to pay, who does carpool, where is the wedding, does it have to be this brand of detergent, [or diapers] when do we leave for the meeting, are all part of the endless holy details of marriage; they are of critical importance.

But marriage can not only be essential communications. The quick “I love you” that follows the phone call or the smile that precedes it, among so much more, creates the necessary chibah [love/clinging] necessary to confront the challenges of life.

For 38 years, the Jews were estranged. They knew what they had to do. But that was not enough. Tu B’av marked the return of that intimacy, of the special relationship which they pined for in their communications with Hashem.

And for us? We want the same thing!! In speaking to God, we must figure out a way to make our prayers cease to be an exalted shopping lists and transform them into words that ooze with chibah and intimacy. Chassidus teaches of the power of unscripted prayers, such as Hashem, I thank you for all that is in my life; even as I feel challenged and it did not all work out as I scripted it – I know that you are there.

A final note: Rashi [in the Hebrew] incorporates three elements in the return of intimacy: chibah, panim el panim and yishuv hada’as. Each one requires a world of work: Language of affection needs face to face communication and serenity. A facebook poke won’t do the trick, nor will a rushed formalistic ritual thank you/I love you. If for but a moment, our ability to express love with serenity, will allow us to achieve intimacy and deep connection with those whom we so desperately want it.

In our lives and in the lives of Klal Yisrael, may that speech return!

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles


1. Cf. Rashbam 121a sv d’amar – they made these days of simcha for the dibbur reappeared to Moshe. It would seem strange to make a holiday because all those that were supposed to die finished dying! Cf. Tosafos Bava Basra 121a sv Yom – who explains that it took another 5 days for the mourning to end and the reappearance of the Shechina requires simcha. Rabbeinu Tam who posits that Hashem forgave those that were supposed to die in the fortieth year; the holiday of 15 Av would then also be a celebration of the saving of the 15,000 men who were expecting to die and the fact that Hashem extended forgiveness.

2.The mechilta expresses the idea that Moshe’s communication is solely a reflection of the relationship between Hashem and Klal Yisrael. צא ואמור להם שבזכותם הוא מדבר עמי. Cf. Rabbeinu Bechayai [Devarim, 2:16] who develops this idea in a magnificent manner.

3. According to many, that is its rightful chronological place [cf Ramban, Ibn ezra places the story earlier].

4. It would also appear that the parsha of nesachim was related after the meraglim cf. Ramban . Presumably, the same can be said about all the halachic sections unless there are midrashic statements to the contrary. Thus we would also include the presents to the kohanim, tithes, tzitzis, parah adumah, was related in the inerim period [ tavoh haeim

5. We omitted the 1st comment of Rashi: “until this point [when the people stopped dying] it did not say vayidabeir, rather vayomer” – implies that dibbur is soft and intimate, is puzzling, for Rashi previously comments [Bamidbar, 12:] that dibbur means harsh speech. Cf. Mizrachi who posits that there are variant midrashic approaches. Levush however reconciles Rashi’s comments in a most beautiful manner.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.