Editor's note: This week Beha'alotcha is read in Israel and Nasso is read outside of Israel
Chapter eleven in this Torah portion begins with a very enigmatic verse: “And the people were like complainers; evil in the ears of G-d. And G-d heard, and His wrath flared, and a fire of G-d burned them, and it consumed at the edge of the camp”. Curiously, they are not referred to simply as “complainers”. Rather, they are described as “like complainers”. Furthermore, we are not told what they were complaining about.
Abarbanel explains that despite the fact that Jewish People had spent an entire year at Mount Sinai where they had received the Torah with its teachings and Divine admonitions, they never really abandoned the heretical beliefs that they had absorbed in Egypt. Similarly, they had imitated the crass Egyptian character, especially in regard to eating and drinking. Here, at Mount Sinai, in a place where the Divine Torah should have straightened out their crooked beliefs and character, the Egyptian influence was not yet completely erased. Despite the fact that they were accompanied by the Ark of the Covenant, and led by the Clouds of Glory, the two episodes that begin this chapter illustrate the failure of belief and character which remained with them.
The Hebrew word that is usually translated as “complainers” actually means, in the context of our text, “those who sought a pretext to complain”. Abarbanel then transfigures the rest of the verse so that it reads as follows: “They sought pretexts to prove that G-d’s ears were bad”; that is to say, that G-d did not pay attention to the everyday words and actions of the people. This is similar to the verse in Psalms 94:7: “And they said that Gd will not see, G-d will not understand.” Their belief was that Gd was not aware of and did not relate to the details of everyday, lowly, physical existence. They expressed this belief now because Moshe had just said in the previous verse (10:36): “Arise, G-d, and let Your foes be scattered, let those who hate You flee from before You. And when it (the Ark) rested, he (Moshe) would say, ‘Reside tranquilly, O, G-d, among the myriad thousands of Israel’.”
The people were essentially mocking Moshe’s words. They didn’t believe that G-d really resided amongst them, that He was attuned to them. Yet they are still described as like those looking for a pretext because they were not totally denying the concept of Divine Providence. They understood that it applied to well-known and publicized miraculous interventions in nature. Rather, they were looking for a pretext to deny G-d’s providence in regard to the details of everyday life.
Since their transgression does involve an overtly public action, the Torah does not go into further detail. Rather, to counter their claim that G-d does not hear, the Torah says explicitly that G-d heard. To counter their claim that G-d was not personally involved on an individual basis, G-d made sure that they would recognize Him through the punishment of fire, which was directed miraculously and specifically against only those who were guilty. The fire burned only at the “edge” of the camp, indicating that it was a miraculous fire, not a natural one which would have normally spread further. The people cried out to Moshe, who then prayed to G-d. To further demonstrate the uniquely personal and providential nature of the fire, it was then immediately absorbed into the ground.