The elders' guilt

The sins spoken of in this week’s Torah portion were committed by evil members of the nation, but the elders were guilty for not objecting.

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Rabbi Eliezer Melamed,

Petri dishes with developing plants and algae
Petri dishes with developing plants and algae
Courtesy RosettaGreen

From the Desert to the Land of Israel: Hopes and Crises

In the Torah portion Behaalotcha. the renewed journey to the Land of Israel began. The first journey was interrupted by the sin of the Golden Calf; it then became clear that the road to the Promised Land was fraught with obstacles, and that the Jewish people must prepare in the best possible manner so they could withstand the anticipated battles with its external enemies, and more severely, with its internal enemy – the evil inclination casting doubt on faith and inclining the heart to physical desires, instead of making an effort to realize the mission.

In order to cross the difficult path, God commanded Moshe to place the Tabernacle in the center of the Israelite camp, to sanctify the tribe of the Levites, and to situate them around the Tabernacle so they could preserve the holiness of the sanctuary, enlist and order all men of army age – “each one in his own camp, and each one designated by the banner for his division” – heading towards the conquest and settlement of the Land, and to order the twelve tribes of Israel around the Tabernacle, and thus, with the entire camp revealing the grand vision – to prepare for the journey. \

And behold, the cloud of God rose above the camp, and the journey began. “And when the ark went forth, Moshe said, ‘Arise, O God, and scatter your enemies! Let your foes flee before You!’ (Numbers 10:35).

God wanted to hasten their entry into the Land, and to bring them there quickly in three days, however, at the first encampment, the wicked at the edge of the camp already began to complain about the hardships of the journey, and the righteous did not rise up against them to object. “The people began to complain, and it was evil in God’s ears. When God heard it, He displayed His anger, and God’s fire flared out, consuming the edge of the camp” (Numbers 11: 1).

The Elders were Punished as Well

Who were the people consumed at the edge of the camp? Simply speaking, it was the most wicked, those who complained. However, on the other edge of the camp as well, among the most righteous, people were punished. These were the elders of the nation, those men who guarded the embers of faith in Egypt, who when Moshe returned from Midian, God commanded them to accompany him to Pharaoh, to demand he let Israel go; but out of fear, they slipped away, one by one.

At the revelation at Mount Sinai, God chastised them by commanding that only Moshe would ascend the mountain, and they would have to remain with the nation at the foot of the mountain (Exodus 5: 1, and Rashi there). Instead of comprehending their sin and accepting its ‘tikun‘ (rectification) with humility, the elders did not pay enough respect at the giving of the Torah, and alongside flippantly eating and drinking, they gazed at the ‘Shekhina’ (Divine Presence) warranting death, however, God did not wish to disturb the rejoicing of the Torah, and postponed their punishment until the incident of the complainers.

This was their last chance to rectify their sin: had they shown concern for the honor of Heaven, and protested against the complainers, they would have rectified their sins and saved themselves. But acting indifferently, they were punished, and consumed by the fire of God (Exodus 24:10-11, and Rashi).

The Situation Worsens

When the elders of the nation did not protest, the mixed multitude, the frivolous people, began yearning for meat and complaining. Once again, the great leaders of Israel did not rise up to object, and as a result, many of the Israelites joined in the crying. Seemingly, this did not demonstrate disrespect for the honor of Heaven, but in truth, their weeping was a harsh and offensive complaint. Instead of seeing all the good that God had done for them, they wept. “God became very angry, and Moshe also considered it wrong” (Numbers 11:10).

The Attempt to Rectify by the Seventy Elders

It was still possible to rectify the situation. For this purpose, God commanded the appointment of seventy elders, those same policemen who selflessly gave themselves up to be flogged in Egypt. When Pharaoh decreed Israel be forced to hard labor, he appointed foremen to strike the Israelites in order to expedite the completion of the work quota imposed upon them. However, those same foremen had mercy on their brethren and refrained from oppressing them, and as a result, the Egyptians beat the foremen, as written in the Torah: “The Israelite foremen, whom Pharaoh’s administrators had appointed, were flogged. They were told, ‘Yesterday and today you did not complete your quotas. Why didn’t you make as many bricks as before?” Because they bore Israel’s sorrow and bent their backs to suffer the lashes in their stead,

God commanded Moshe appoint them to the Sanhedrin, and imparted some of the spirit which rested on him, to them: “When the spirit descended on them, they gained the gift of prophecy and did not lose it” (Exodus 5:11, Numbers 11:16 and Rashi).

With all their greatness, the seventy elders failed to rectify the sin, to protest against the complainers, and assist Moshe in leading the people. This is the communal responsibility required of the righteous in order to enter the Land, where all of Israel is dependent on one another. Though the new elders remained in their individual righteousness, they were unable to rise to a ‘Clal Yisrael’ level, and therefore did not receive further prophecies.

Only Moshe Stood in the Breach

The people continued complaining and hurling accusations towards Heaven, suggesting that God lacked the ability to feed and gratify them. God gave them flocks of quail to show that His power was not limited, and that same meat they petulantly requested, turned into an obstacle, for all those who fell upon the quail to eat it lustfully – were punished and died by the wrath of God.

Nevertheless, the basic sin was not rectified, and the righteous did not feel the responsibility to protest against the sinners. The cracks continued penetrating deeper, reaching the holier sections of the nation, to the point where even Aharon and Miriam spoke against Moshe, implying he was acting with excessive celibacy. Undoubtedly their intentions were for the good, but since complaining had become widespread amongst the people, they also failed to properly take into account the honor of Moshe Rabbeinu, the messenger of God. And there was no one to express opposition except God.

Even though the wicked were punished at the edge of the camp, and the mixed multitude and the lustful Israelites were punished, and Aaron and Miriam were reprimanded – the righteous did not wake up to accept that from then on they would stand against sinners. The people had become accustomed to blaming God and Moshe in times of crisis, instead of conducting a soul-searching aimed at self-correction.

The Climax of the Downfall – A Crying for Generations

Thus, the Children of Israel’s faith in God and Moshe Rabbeinu was fractured, and they asked to send spies before entering the Land. And when the spies returned, they spoke slanderously of the land, expressing their opinion that the people of Israel would not be able to conquer the Land, and at that moment, that generation stood before its greatest trial. At the last minute, Yehoshua and Calev tried to oppose the spies and save the nation from itself. But it was too late, their words fell on deaf ears. The righteous had become accustomed to God saving them, and having Moshe Rabbeinu stand alone against the wicked. But when the Divine response to the words of the spies did not come immediately, they too were filled with the fear of the challenge of entering the Land, and together with all the people, wept that night.

In this crying, they essentially despised the cherished Land, and turned their backs on the main challenge for which they had left Egypt – to reveal the word of God in the Land, as the Torah says: “I will bring you to the land regarding which I raised My hand, swearing that I would give it to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I will give it to you as an inheritance. I am God” (Exodus 6:8; 3:17).

It was then that the verdict of destruction for that entire generation was decreed, and the entrance into the Land was delayed for forty years, until all of their carcasses fell in the desert, and their sons could enter the Land. And since that generation was considered a ‘dor deiah’ (uniquely intellectual) – a generation that had experienced the enslavement of Egypt, the miracle of redemption, and the giving of the Torah – the night on which they sinned, the night of Tisha B’Av, became a night of crying for generations.

May it be God’s will that we merit bearing the national responsibility, to stand in the breach, to diligently strive for the revelation of the word of God through the settlement of the Land of Israel, both physically and spiritually, and thus rectify the sins that led to the destruction.

Immersion of Utensils Depends on Ownership

Q: A person who buys an eating utensil made in a factory that belongs to a Jew, but all the employees are non-Jews, does the utensil have to be immersed in a mikveh?

A: As a preface, when a Jew buys or receives an eating utensil made out of metal or glass, it is a mitzvah to immerse it in a mikveh to purify it, similar to a ‘ger‘ (convert) who is required to ritually immerse himself as part of his conversion. However, everything is contingent on ownership: if the Jew owns the factory, even if all the workers are Gentiles, the utensils do not require immersion. On the other hand, if the factory belongs to a non-Jew, even if all the workers are Jewish, the utensils require immersion.

Q: Does a merchant who purchases eating utensils from a Gentile with the intention of selling them, have to immerse them in a mikveh?

A: As long as he intends to sell them, he is not required to immerse them, since, as far as he is concerned, they are utensils intended for merchandise. But a Jew who buys them from him in order to use them, is obligated to immerse them.

Jewish and Gentile Partnerships

A utensil that was bought from a non-Jew, by a Jew and a gentile together – does not require immersion, since it has not been completely transferred to Jewish ownership. Jews are permitted to eat with these utensils, just as Jews are permitted to eat with the utensils of a Gentile, provided they were not used for ‘treif’ (un-kosher) foods in such a way that the taste of the ‘treif’ food was absorbed or stuck to the utensil. If afterwards the Jew purchases the Gentile’s share in the utensil, he would be obligated to immerse it with a ‘bracha’ (blessing).

IDF and Police Utensils

Eating utensils purchased by the Israel Defense Forces, the Israel Police Forces, and other bodies belonging to the State of Israel, require immersion with a ‘bracha‘. And although there are non-Jewish citizens with full civil rights in the country, since the State of Israel is generally defined as a Jewish state, the utensils require immersion.

Utensils of a Convert

Q: About a year ago we were privileged to undergo conversion, sanctify ourselves, and join the people of Israel. The question suddenly came to us: Do we have to immerse all of our eating utensils?

A: A ‘ger‘ does not have to immerse his utensils, because when he performs ritual immersion and becomes a Jew, the utensils in his possession are also purified along with him. True, in recent generations, some authorities have voiced doubts about this (Darchei Teshuva 120:4 in the name of Chadrei De’ah; Meharashag 3:48), and in their wake, some rabbis of the last generation wrote that ‘gerim‘ are required to immerse their utensils without a ‘bracha’. However, the Rishonim and the Acharonim did not mention this seemingly essential halakha, and if ‘gerim’ are indeed required to immerse their utensils, it cannot be that they would have forgotten to mention such a halakha as part of the laws of conversion, or of the laws of ‘tevilat kelim’ (immersion of utensils). In light of this, we are compelled to say that the utensils of a ‘ger‘ do not require immersion, since they are purified along with his conversion. (Thus is written in ‘Shem M’Shmuel’, Matot 5678, in the name of his father ‘Avnei Nezer’; Nezer HaKodesh Yoreh Deah 17; Tzitz Eliezer 8:20; Minchat Asher 3:66).

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: http://en.yhb.org.il/