Bar-Ilan University

The Faculty of Jewish Studies

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Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit

Bar Ilan University

Parashat Beha‘alotekha

Moses: The Faithful Shepherd

Yona Bar-Maoz

Department of Bible

Verses 4-9 in Numbers 11 describe how the Israelites wept over the absence of meat from their daily menu and the loathing which they developed for manna, while verse 10 presents the reaction of God and of Moses to their complaints: "And Moses heard the people weeping by families, each man at the door of his tent, and the anger of the Lord was greatly kindled, and it was evil in the eyes of Moses." This verse contains three independent clauses; Moses is the subject of the first and God's anger the subject of the second. In the third clause, ’and it was evil in the eyes of Moses“ (ub‘ene Moshe ra) Moses returns as part of the predicate--but where is the subject? What was "evil" in his eyes?

In his commentary Or Ha-Chayim, Chaim ben Atar explains: "And it was evil in the eyes of Moses: For Moses was meticulous about his own handiwork. Observe what is written of Samuel the Prophet, that his days were shortened so that he not see the evil which was to overtake Saul, and similarly Israel's improper actions and complaints were evil in the eyes of Moses."

Ramban offers a different interpretation, basing himself on Moses's reaction in verses 11-15, in which Moses links the people's demand for meat with Moses's own claims against God:

The sense of "I cannot carry all this people by myself" (v. 14) is not that the elders should help Moses give them meat, for where would they find it? In addition, even if the Israelites would have had many administrators the people would continue to complain only about Moses, as when they said, "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt?" (Num. 20:5). Rather, Moses thought that if the people would have many leaders, these leaders would appease their anger and speak kindly to them when they complained.

In Ramban's opinion, then, it was Moses's own general situation as a leader that he perceived as "evil," since he could not govern the people without constant agitations and dissatisfaction among them.

Additional support for this interpretation appears in the commentary of Joseph Bechor Shor on Moses's exclamation: "And if You do thus with me, kill me, I ask, at once, if I have found favor with You, and let me not look on my wretchedness“ (v. 15)-- it is better for me to die by Your hand, rather than to degenerate increasingly at their hands." According to Bachya ben Asher (anticipated by Midrash Shocher Tov 23:3), Moses's apprehension at his inability to satisfy the people was in fact a fear of meeting his death at their hands: "Kill me, I ask, at once ... let it be You who kills me, and not human beings."

Rashi, following various Midrashim--Sifri Numbers 95, Mechilta Beshallach Shira 6, Tanchuma Beshallach 16--offers a different interpretation: God's anger with the people is "evil" in Moses's eyes, and Moses wants to prevent the grave consequences of God‘s anger.[1] Here is Rashi on verse 15:

And if You do thus with me--Moses's strength failed, as if he were a woman [the word “you“-- at--is in the feminine form], when the Holy One, blessed be He, showed him the punishment which was to fall upon them. For this reason he said to God, "If it is so, kill me first, and let me not look on my wretchedness. It ought to have been written,“their wretchedness“,[2] but Scripture modified the expression[so as not to insult Israel].

A supplement to this approach can be found in the Rashi‘s commentary on verse 22, where Rashi combines remarks made by the Sages in Tosefta Sota 6:4 and Sifri Numbers 95 to emphasize Moses's opposition to the Divine intention to punish Israel severely, even though God intends to fullfill their request:[3]

’Shall the flocks and the herds be slaughtered for them?“(11:22)--This is one of the four places where Rabbi Shimon did not concur with the interpretation of Rabbi Akiba. Rabbi Akiba said, "[The people number] six hundred thousand, but You have said, 'I will give them meat and they shall eat it a full month‘ (v. 21). The phrase

'Shall the flocks and the herds‘ is meant literally: who can supply them?“ ...

Rabbi Shimon said, "Heaven forbid such an idea [that Moses thought God unable to provide the people with enough meat];such a thought could not occur to that righteous man! Shall he of whom it is said, 'He is faithful in all My house‘ (Num. 12:7), declare, `The Omnipresent cannot supply us'? Instead Moses pointed out that the people numbered six hundred thousand and that God had undertaken to give them meat for a month, and after this will You kill this great nation? Shall the flocks and the herds be slaughtered for them, so that the people should then be killed, and this meal be their last? Will this be to Your credit? Do we say to a donkey, "Eat this measure of barley and then we will cut your head off"?'

The Holy One answered, `But if I do not give them meat, they will say that My hand is shortened [I am unable to do so]; do you think it right that they should believe this? Let them and a hundred more like them perish, but let them not think, even for a moment, that My hand has been shortened!' "And now shall you see whether My word will come to pass“ (v. 23).

Rabban Gamaliel, the son of Rabbi Judah the Prince, said, "[Moses said,] One cannot argue with this kind of nonsense. Since they are simply looking for a pretext You cannot satisfy them; they will always end up arguing with You. If You give them beef, they will say they wanted mutton. If You give them mutton, they will ask for beef, or vice versa, or `We wanted venison and chicken,' or `We wanted fish and grasshoppers.' God said, `If this is so, [and I do not give them anything], they will say that My hand has been shortened.'

Moses asked to be allowed to go and calm the people down, and God said, Now shall you see whether My word will come to pass--for they will not listen to you. Attempting to appease them, Moses said, `Has the hand of the Lord been shortened? For He smote the rock, so that water gushed out ... can He not give bread also? (Psalms 78:20).'

But they said, `This is merely a way to calm us down, for in fact He has no power to grant our request.' This is what the text means by 'And Moses went out and reported the words of the Lord to the people‘(v. 24)--since they would not listen to him,‘He gathered seventy of the people‘s elders‘ (v. 24)."

These interpretations, which view Mose‘s remarks in verse 11:21-22 as attempts to forestall God‘s anger, rather than as cynical or skeptical comments of Moses, can be defended on linguistic and thematic grounds. The story contains verbal and thematic parallels to three other narratives--all from Exodus--in which Moses comes to Israel's defense: his beating of the Egyptian (2:11-15), the outcome of his first mission to Pharaoh (5:22-23), and the story of the Golden Calf (chapters 32-33).

Numbers 11                             Sources in Exodus
And the anger of the Lord              Why, O Lord, has Your anger 
blazed forth                           blaze forth
greatly(10)                            against Your people? (32:11)
Why have You dealt ill                 Why have You dealt ill with this
with Your servant? (11)                people? (5:22)
and why have I not found               You have said ... and also you
favor in Your eyes (11)                have found favor in My eyes
to lay the burden of all               Why have You dealt ill with this
this people upon me (11)               people? why is it that You have
For You said to me, "Carry             me? (5:22)
them in your breast... to              Depart, go up from here, you and
the land which You swore to            the people you have brought up to
their fathers (12)                     the land which I swore to
                                       Abraham... (33:1)
And if You do thus with me (15)        And now, if You will forgive 
                                       their sin, and if not... (32:32)
Kill me, I ask, at once (15)           Do you intend to kill me, as you 
                                       killed the Egyptian ... and he 
                                       sought to kill Moses (2:14-15)
If I have found favor in               And now, if I have found favor in
Your eyes (15)                         your eyes (33:13)
and let me not look                    For since I came ... to speak in
on my [= their] evil (15)              your name, he has dealt evilly 
                                       with this people, and You have 
                                       not delivered Your people at all

Beyond these key words, the resemblance between our story and the others cited above extends to motifs. In Exodus 2 we find a parallel contrast between Moses's desire to aid the people and their ingratitude, together with the fact that Moses endangers himself for their sake; in Exodus 5 there is a parallel rebellion against the problematic functions of the leadership; and Exodus 32-33 contains the following marked parallels to Numbers 11: (a) Moses's ultimatum to God; compare Exodus 32:32, "and Now, if You forgive their sin--and if not, wipe me now, I ask, out of Your book which You have written," with Numbers 11:15: "And if You do thus with me, kill me, I ask, at once"; and (b) Moses‘ basing his appeal upon "finding favor" in God's eyes in order to ensure God‘s compliance with Moses's request. In the story of the Golden Calf Moses seeks a full pardon for the people as proof that he has found favor in God's eyes (the expression 'to find favor‘ occurs five times!), so that the double appearance of the phrase in our present narrative may also indicate a petition for Divine forgiveness.

This explanation of the expression is reinforced if we examine its etymology in light of the comment of Abraham ibn Ezra when it first appearance in the Pentateuch: "And Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord" (Gen. 6:8). The word translated here as "favor" (chen), often rendered as "grace," is explained by Ibn Ezra in terms of "mercy." The word techina (mercy) in Joshua 11:20, he says, comes from chen, and "to find chen" means the same (or rather, the precise opposite) as a phrase found in Ezekiel: "No eye had pity upon you" (Ezek. 16:5). We can add that the Aramaic Targum Onkelos translates chen in Gen 6:8 ("And Noah found chen...") as "mercy" (rachamim).

What this means is that in a situation where danger of destruction hovers, someone who can "find favor" will be saved because God's mercy will be aroused towards him.[4] We may therefore assume that when Moses twice hopes to "find favor", the people are indeed in danger of extermination, and it is from this danger that he wishes to save them (as Rashi and the Midrashim both indicate); he does not endeavor to awaken Divine mercy merely to secure his own death, as a simple reading of verse 11:15 might indicate.

In an article entitled "Between Justice and Mercy: Prophetic Prayer,"[5] Yochanan Muffs writes: "For Moses, father of the prophets, his entire life in the wilderness was one long prayer to deliver Israel from God's thunderbolt." He describes the long series of clever defense-attorney tactics adopted by Moses, who recoils from no method if it will help in Israel's defense--and Moses did this most successfully, as the Psalmist tells us: "He would have destroyed them, had not Moses His chosen one stood before Him in the breach to turn back His anger from destroying them" (Ps. 106:23).

The chapter under discussion in Parashat Beha‘alotekha can be added to the list of defending tactics. The Israelites frequently arouse God's wrath,[6] but only here are we told that "the anger of the Lord blazed forth greatly." Against the gravity of the danger threatening the people, Moses cannot be satisfied with prayer alone (as in verse 2) but must find a more vigorous defense. And as the best form of defense is an offense, he at once turns to the Sovereign of the Universe with various arguments in order to draw the fire of His anger upon himself. The rest of the dialogue between Moses and God must be understood in terms of hints and allusions that require interpretation, in the way that M.D. Cassuto[7] and Muffs dealt with the dialogue associated with the sin of the Golden Calf and the way that the Midrashim and Rashi handle Numbers 11.

Here too Moses eventually succeeds in assuaging, in part, the Divine wrath. While it is true that "the anger of the Lord blazed forth against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague" (v. 33), this was nothing like the blow that might have been expected from the extent of His anger. The Zohar's comment on Exodus 3:1, "And Moses was a shepherd," is most appropriate here: "Someone who is a good shepherd of his sheep will save them from wolves and lions. So someone who is a leader of Israel, if he is a good leader, will save them from enemy nations and from judgments passed on earth and judgments passed in Heaven, and guide them towards the World To Come. Thus Moses was a faithful shepherd, and the Holy One, blessed be He, saw that he was fit to shepherd Israel."


[1] See Rashi on Exod. 4:14, following Zevachim 102a: "Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha said, Every time God's wrath is mentioned in the Torah an impression is made [punishment follows]."

[2] Divrei David, a commentary on Rashi's Torah commentary by David ben Shmuel Halevi (the author of Turei Zahav on the Shulchan Aruch), notes Rashi's comment on Job 32:3: "And they condemned Job--this is one of the places where scribes have traditionally emended the text. It should have read And they condemned God by their silence but Scripture has modified the expression. Similarly, Let me not see Your evil [i.e. evil treatment of Your people] has been modified to my evil." We may add to this remark from Divrei David that in the printed texts the word bera'atcha (Your evil) appears in a shortened form as bera'at, but in the New York Ms 782 no. 24103 the full form is found.

[3] Moses's attempt to appease the people does not appear in the rabbinic sources at the end, but after the interpretation of Shimon bar Yochai. Rashi adduces it in a manner which suggests that it is common to the two last opinions.

[4] See Lot's rescue (Gen. 19:19); and Jacob, in fear of death at his brother's hand, several times bases his appeal upon "finding favor" (Gen. 32:5; 33:8; 33:10, 15).

[5] See the anthology Torah Nidreshet, ed. Avraham Shapira (Tel Aviv, 1984), p. 42.

[6] Exod. 32:11; Num. 11:1; 25:3; 32:13. God's response is so sharp here because of the nature of the people's complaint, which is not a spontaneous outburst of feeling arising from distress but a deliberately planned and provocative demand. It refrains from pointing a finger of blame, so as not to give a pretext for punishment, but as Rashi points out (see on Num 11:1), it was intended to reach God's ears and arouse annoyance.

[7] Cassuto, Commentary to Exodus (Jerusalem, 1959). "In order to understand the reverberations of the dialogue in this passage, it is necessary to grasp that it is not conducted according to the rational modes of thought of Greece or of modern times, but in the Oriental style, where the meaning of the interlocutors is expressed more by hints than by explicit statements" (p. 302).

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