The Israelites wait for the signal from God before they leave Mount Sinai and head north toward Canaan. At last God’s cloud, which has been hovering over the portable tent-sanctuary, ascends and glides off in the direction where God wants the Israelites to travel next.1
The Israelites spend the whole book of Leviticus/Vayikra at Mount Sinai, initiating the priests and the sanctuary and performing various religious rituals for the first time. During the first two Torah portions of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, they learn how to disassemble the Tent of Meeting and its courtyard, carry the pieces safely, and march in formation by tribe. But they do not set off until this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“When you bring up”):
On the twentieth of the second month of the second year, the cloud rose up from over the Mishkan of the Testimony. The Israelites journeyed on their journey-stages from the Wilderness of Sinai. Vayishkon, the cloud, in the Wilderness of Paran. (Numbers 10:11-12)
mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = dwelling-place. (From the root verb shakhan, שָׁכַן = dwell, inhabit, settle in, stay.) The portable tent-sanctuary or “tabernacle” is made as a place for God to dwell, at least part-time, among the Israelites.2
vayishkon (וַיִּשְׁכֺּן) = and it settled, and it came to rest and dwelled. (Also from the root verb shakhan.)
The first stage of the journey north toward Canaan lasts three days; then the cloud descends, and they camp for a month at an uninhabited spot in Paran.3 The Torah gives it two place-names: first Taveirah, then Kivrot Hata-avah.
The complaints begin after the cloud has come to a stop and the camp is set up. The Torah does not say what the Israelites complained about; the important thing is that once they have left Mount Sinai they start whining again.
And the people were becoming complainers, and it was evil in the ears of God. God listened, and [God’s] anger heated up and burned against them, and a fire of God ate up the edge of the camp. Then they wailed to Moses for help, and Moses prayed to God, and the fire sank down. And the name of that place was called Taveirah, because the fire of Hashem barah. (Numbers 11:1-3)
Taveirah (תַּבְעֵררָה) = it burns. (From the verb barah, בָּרעֲרָה = burned.)
But the people do not stop complaining. They find a pretext: they do not like the food.
Then the riffraff who were among them felt a craving and they wept again, and the Israelites also wept, and said: “Who will feed us meat?” (Numbers 11:4)
There is no lack of meat at the camp in Paran; the people brought all their livestock with them from Egypt, herds of cows and flocks of sheep and goats.4 At Mount Sinai they learned how to make wholeness-offerings, in which portions of the slaughtered animals were eaten along with some of the bread by the priests and by the donors and their guests.5
If some of the “riffraff” among the people6 got left off the invitation lists, it might explain their complaint. But then why do all the Israelites join in asking “Who will feed us meat?”
Perhaps their problem is not that a shortage of meat, but that they want to be fed, like children—or slaves. Yet even though the people eat their own meat and bread, God is still providing them with the miracle of manna every morning.
We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt at no charge, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. And now our throats are dry. There is nothing but the manna before our eyes! (Numbers 11:5-6)
In other words, they miss Egypt. They miss the food they ate in Egypt, and despise the food God gives them in the wilderness. Egypt was where the Israelites were slaves to a government that wanted their eventual extermination. Yet it was also their home. The Wilderness of Paran does not feel like home, even though God is feeding them and taking care of them, even though everyone can see the cloud by day and fire by night over the mishkan, so they know their God is in residence.
The rules Moses has transmitted to them are clear; they know how to serve God instead of Pharaoh, they know what to do in terms of both cult ritual and communal life. The divine cloud leads them on every journey, and tells them when to pitch camp and when to pull up stakes. Life should be easy.
But the Israelites whine so much that God gets angry and teaches them a lesson by sending flocks of quail that stack up two cubits deep on the ground. The people gather more dead quail than they can eat.
The meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, when God’s anger heated up against the people and God struck a great blow against them. And the name of that place was called Kivrot Hatavah, because there the people kavru those who were mitavim. (Numbers 11:33-34)
Kivrot (קִבְרוֹת) = burial grounds of. (From the same root verb as kavru, קָבְרוּ = they buried.)
Hata-avah (הַתַּאֲוָה) = the desire, appetite, craving. (From the same root verb as mitavim, מִתְאַוִּים = feeling a craving, a longing.)
Thus the first camp in the Wilderness of Paran is named both Taveirah, after both God’s burning anger when the people began complaining again, and Kivrot Hatavah, after the burial of people who were too attached to their cravings for the former home in Egypt, the place of slavery, extermination, and comfort food.
Why did God’s cloud stop and settle for a while in the Wilderness of Paran, before the Israelites reached the border of Canaan? Was it a test to find out if the people would revert to their old complaining ways, even after they had built the mishkan for God to dwell in?
In every human heart there is both a longing for a new life and a longing to return to the familiar and well-known. There is courage to journey to a new land, and there is also entrenched discouragement. Although the proportion of resilience to despair is different inside each individual, every person does get opportunities to lean one way or the other.
Are you leaning toward God or Pharaoh today?
- And when the cloud rose up from above the mishkan, the Israelites would pull out on each of their journeys. But if the cloud did not rise up, they would not pull out until the day it did rise. Because the cloud of God was over the mishkan by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the Israelites on all their journeys. (Exodus/Shemot 40:36-38)
- See my posts Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home, and Bemidbar: Two Kinds of Troops.
- Numbers 10:33-34.
- Exodus 12:38.
- See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.
- The Hebrew word sometimes translated as “riffraff” is asafsuf (אֲסַפְסֻף), based on the verb asaf (אָסַף) = gather in, gather against, take in, take away.