Between Yitro and Pinchas
Mount Nebo symbolizes a place from which one can see the Land but not enter it. Taking her lead from Moses, who was commanded (Devarim 32:48-52) to ascend Mount Nebo in order to see the Land, the poetess Rachel speaks of Nebo in her poem Mineged ["across from"] as a universal human experience: "Each man and his Nebo over the wide earth."
When we read the first parshiyot of Bamidbar, in parashat Beha'alotkha, just before the story of the Spies, we find the Israelites receiving the following commandment in the context of the laws of the substitute Paschal offering:
If a stranger dwells with you, and he makes a Passover sacrifice to the Lord, according to the statutes of the Passover sacrifice and its ordinances he shall make it. One statute shall apply to you, to the stranger and to the native-born citizen. (Bamidbar 9:14)
The Torah here speaks to the generation that left Egypt in the second year after the Exodus. It sounds as if they are about to enter the Land; indeed, it is only after the sin of the Spies that the Generation of Wilderness is condemned to die along the way. Perhaps this was that generation's "Nevo" experience.
I think it is important to trace how the Generation of the Wilderness developed; perhaps the story of the Spies should not be viewed as a one-time affair, but rather as an ongoing crisis.
When did the crisis begin and what was its cause?
Towards the end of parashat Beha'alotkha (10:35-36), a two-verse long passage appears, apparently completely out of context. It is bracketed off from the verses preceding and following it by a pair of upside down characters of the Hebrew letter nun.
Rashi, following the Gemara (Shabbat 116a) explains:
He made marks for it [this passage], before it and after it, as if to indicate that this is not its proper place [in Scripture]. So why was it written here? To make a break between one punishment and the next.
The Gemara (Shabbat 116a) lists these misfortunes:
R. Shimon ben Gamaliel said: This section is destined to be removed from here and written in its [right place]. And why is it written here? In order to provide a break between the first [account of] punishment and the second [account of] punishment. What is the second [account of] punishment? - And the people were as murmurers (Bamidbar 11:1). The first [account of] punishment? And they moved away from the mount of the Lord (Bamidbar 10:33), which R. Hama ben R. Hanina expounded [as meaning] that they turned away from following the Lord. (Based on Soncino translation)
According to the plain sense of Scripture, we would read the verse And they moved away from the mount of the Lord as a purely factual statement, but the Sages heard in it an additional stratum: the mount of the Lord is not a geographical concept, but rather a philosophical and axiological concept. Rashi, cognizant of the Sages' interpretation, follows Sifre (82) in his comment on it:
A distance of three days: They completed a distance of three days travel in one day, for the Holy One, blessed be He, wanted to bring them to the Land immediately.
That is to say that something happened here that kept them from immediately entering the Land, as was God's original plan. With the words And they moved away from the mount of the Lord, the Torah hints that this is where the trouble began.
Verses 29-32 tell us how Moses tried to convince his father in law to join the Israelites and enter the Land of Israel with them:
Then Moses said to Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses's father-in-law, We are traveling to the place about which the Lord said, I will give it to you. Come with us and we will be good to you, for the Lord has spoken of good fortune for Israel. He said to him, I won't go, for I will go to my land and my birthplace. He said, Please don't leave us, for because you are familiar with our encampments in the desert and you will be our guide. And if you go with us, then we will bestow on you the good which God grants us.
We do not know if Yitro was convinced and stayed with them. While RaMBaN contends that Moses convinced Yitro, Ibn Ezra, Seforno, and Abarbanel holds that Yitro left the Israelites and returned to his own land. If we accept the latter reading, can we find a connection between Yitro's departure and the events which later befell the Israelites?
The words you will be our guide [literally: "you will be eyes for us"] point to a relationship of dependence between Moses and Yitro. The authors of the midrashim and commentaries read these words in various ways. Rashi, for instance, first explains the verse's plain meaning and then mentions a dictum from the Tannaitic midrash Sifre:
You will be our guide: The verse has the past tense, [and] as the Targum renders, [it means: all the wonders wrought for us, you have seen with your eyes.]
Another explanation: [It is in] the future tense-If anything should be hidden from our eyes, you shall enlighten us [with your guidance].
A further interpretation: You shall be as beloved to us as the pupils of our eyes, as it says, "You shall love the stranger" (Devarim 10:9).
This reading suggests that Moses felt he was in need of Yitro's "eyes" in order to continue leading the Israelites through the wilderness. Indeed, immediately after Yitro's departure we read, And they moved away from the mount of the Lord a distance of three days. Immediately after the bracketed passage, So it was, whenever the ark set out So it was, whenever the ark set out, we read:
The people were looking to complain, and it was evil in the ears of the Lord. The Lord heard and His anger flared, and a fire from the Lord burned among them, consuming the extremes of the camp. The people cried out to Moses; Moses prayed to the Lord, and the fire died down. He named that place Tab'erah, for the fire of the Lord had burned among them there. But the multitude among them began to have strong cravings. Then even the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, "Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at."... Moses heard the people weeping with their families, each one at the entrance to his tent. The Lord became very angry, and Moses considered it evil.
Moses said to the Lord, "Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,' to the Land You promised their forefathers? Where can I get meat to give all these people? For they are crying on me, saying, 'Give us meat to eat.' Alone I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me. If this is the way You treat me, please kill me if I have found favor in Your eyes, so that I not see my misfortune." (Bamidbar 11:1-15)
Moses felt he was no longer able to contain the people's complaints. Could it be that Moses' leadership was weakened after he lost Yitro's enlightening "eyes"?
Rashi interprets the use of the feminine form in this verse: "If this is the way You [feminine] treat me: Moses strength became weak like a womans."
Moses is no longer able to keep a grip on the people, to lead it and serve as its apologist before God. That is why immediately afterwards we read the verse: Then the Lord said to Moses, "Assemble for Me seventy men of the elders of Israel..." It is interesting to consider the connection between this verse and Yitro's advice in Shemot 18:
Moses' father in law said to him, "The thing you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will advise you, and may the Lord be with you. [You] represent the people before God, and you shall bring the matters to God. And you shall admonish them concerning the statutes and the teachings, and you shall make known to them the way they shall go and the deed[s] they shall do. But you shall choose out of the entire nation men of substance, God fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain, and you shall appoint over them [Israel] leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens.
Yitro saw something with his "eyes" that eluded Moses: in order to control and lead an entire nation of slaves it is necessary to do without centralization and instead delegate authority. In other words, he must be helped by other people, otherwise You will surely wear yourself out. Indeed, perhaps that is what happened after Yitro left.
It is impossible in the present article to consider every crisis, but within parashat Beha'alotkha itself we find Kivrot Hata'ava [where the people demanded meat] and Aaron and Miriam's talk about the Kushite woman whom [Moses] had taken, which Rashi understands as having been "about her divorce."
Following Rashi (who adopted the drasha from Sifri 99), might we argue that Moses had withdrawn from life in "this world" and thus lost his power as a leader? Indeed, God's defense of Moses relates to his spiritual achievement as a prophet who maintained an intimate relationship with God (I speak to him mouth to mouth). Perhaps Moses, the man of God, needed Yitro's "eyes". Perhaps there is a connection between Moses' seclusion and asceticism and Yitro's departure, as we also read in parashat Yitro:
So Moses' father in law, Yitro, took Zipporah, Moses' wife, after she had been sent away... Now Moses' father in law, Yitro, and his [Moses'] sons and his wife came to Moses, to the desert where he was encamped, to the mountain of God.
Yitro counterbalances the "spiritual" Moses, and acts as his "eyes," helping him operate in this world.
Lacking the "eyes" needed both by Moses as a leader and by the nation itself, Moses must send the Spies who undermine the people's confidence and reveal how unprepared the Generation of the Wilderness was to enter the Land of Israel. Perhaps this also points shows us that Moses - who belonged to that generation - was unable to contend with the demoralization and desperation that had taken grip upon the people. (And see Bamidbar 14:5: Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before the entire congregation of the children of Israel. A similar thing happens during the Korah affair: Moses heard and fell on his face. However, since in that case Aaron was under fire, Moses recouped and managed to prove that his brother had been chosen by God. Nevertheless, the very phenomenon of rebellion against Moses and subversion of the established order testifies to the weakness of his leadership and his unsteady status in the eyes of the people.)
In parashat Hukkat, two of the leaders of the Generation of the Wilderness - Miriam and Aaron - leave the stage and Moses is also told of his impending death. In parashat Balak, Balaam (Yitro's negative image, since according to the Zohar II:69 and other midrashim, he was Pharaoh's advisor) managed to advise Balak that "their God hates fornication" (Sanhedrin 106a) - to cause the people and part of their leadership to commit the sins of harlotry and idolatry. His success was doubtlessly linked to the people's despair; Pinchas's zealous reaction testifies to Moses' lack of leadership (the latter had forgotten the applicable law, as Rashi states, following the midrash):
The law [that anyone cohabiting with a non-Jewish woman is to be executed by zealots] eluded him. [Therefore,] they all burst out weeping. At the incident of the golden calf Moses [successfully] confronted six hundred thousand as it says, He ground it until it was powder... (Shemot 32:20), yet here he appeared so helpless?
However, we should mention that Rashi goes on to write: "However, [this happened] so that Pinchas should come and take what was due to him." Be that as it may, the Sages' ambivalent attitude towards Pinchas's zealotry allows us to make do with Rashi's comparison between Moses' decisive reaction to the Sin of the Calf and his impotence in the present case. Perhaps we may claim that his weakness - lacking "Yitro's eyes" - allowed the people to be overcome by desperation and encouraged the development of zealous reactions.
Perhaps we need "Yitro's eyes," the "eyes" of the stranger and the alien to add an "outside" perspective on events. Perhaps when a person, a group, or a nation becomes entrenched in a mind-set, an outsider's eye must come to illuminate alternative points of view. Then, as now, "a prisoner does not free himself from prison" (Berakhot 5b).
Pinchas Leiser, the editor of Shabbat Shalom, is a psychologist.