Now in the third parasha of Bamidbar, the Children of Israel have not moved since the middle of Shemot. God has descended upon Mount Sinai, proclaimed the Ten Commandments, laid the civil laws before all, and commanded the building of the Mishkan and its attendant laws. The people have organized the camp, they know how they are supposed to march, and they have the banners of the tribes, the trumpets of silver, and the Divine cloud to lead them. Everything is in place, and the time has finally come to move forward. All systems are go, and now? Immediate murmuring, stumbling, and failure: “And they marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days….And the People took to complaining bitterly before the Lord” (Bamidbar 10:33, 11:1). What went wrong?
The answer, I believe, can be found in the Song of the Ark that comes between the leaving of Mount Sinai and the complaining that immediately followed. The song is set off by inverted letter nuns and, according to the Rabbis, divides Bamidbar into two parts (Breishit Rabbah 64). On one side of the divide is the Divine plan, on the other, its harsh encounter with reality.
The song thus serves as the crucial transition from theory to practice. It describes how the ark is to journey, how the people are to make the transition and move forward from Har Sinai:
And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee. And when it rested, he said, Return, O Lord, unto the many thousands of Israel (10:35–36).
On first reading, this passage is quite jarring. Seemingly out of nowhere, we are presented with a militaristic image; the peaceful journey through the wilderness has now become an event of God rising up, attacking, and dispersing God’s enemies. On further reflection, however, we realize that the Torah has been using militaristic imagery all along: Moshe is commanded to count all those who are yotzei tzava, able to go forth to war, and they are to be numbered by their armies (1:2). Indeed, the camps are divided with banners li’tzivotam, according to their troops. The Song of the Ark states clearly what has been implicit all along: the people are preparing to engage in battle. But what is the nature of this battle?
Some commentators take this passage quite literally: we are to wage war against God’s enemies. This is not to say that we should attack them physically, but rather, that we must focus our religious energies and passions on attacking those we view as a threat to our Torah and our way of life. Others turn this battle inward. For them, when we leave Har Sinai to engage the world, we must be ready to do daily battle with our evil inclination. We will be sorely tempted, and to remain true to God and Torah requires constant vigilance and struggle with our baser instincts.
However, one cannot only fight against the bad, be it inside or outside of oneself. One must also fight for the good. The Peace Corps and the Salvation Army are organizations that understand their mission in terms of going to war and whose names communicate a warlike image. The war that they fight is a war against the evils of hunger, poverty, illness, bigotry, and violence. There is also Tzivos Hashem, God’s Army, the organization started by the Lubavitcher Rebbe almost forty years ago to fight against assimilation, alienation, and a growing loss of identity. These wars are not fought with violence or aggression. They are fought through education, leadership, role modeling, and acts of kindness. We win our wars when we focus our energies on amplifying the goodness and the Godliness in the world.
If the journeying forth was indeed a march into such a war, why did the people begin murmuring as soon as they encountered the first harsh realities? The answer is simple: they were not prepared for war. Dividing the people into camps, counting the troops, and even being led forward by the Divine cloud could not accomplish anything if the people only saw themselves as following orders. The verse, “By the word of God they encamped and by the word of God they journeyed,” defined their actions (9:10). In marching forward, the people had no purpose, no destination. And if they did have a destination, it was the “land of milk and honey,” not the “Promised Land.” As Michael Walzer writes in Exodus and Revolution: “The people, dreaming of milk and honey, are materialists; Moses and the Levites, dreaming of holiness, are idealists….The people see and want; Moses has a vision and program” (103). Following orders does not give one the sense of purpose or the steel necessary to face and endure hardship and privation. This can only be achieved by internalizing a sense of vision and higher calling.
But it is not enough to embrace a sense of purpose and work to implement it; one must also become a partner in the very articulation of the vision itself. As Hazal note, the Torah told us that the people obediently followed God in their journeys: when the cloud moved, they moved; when the cloud rested, they rested. But in the Song of the Ark, Moshe calls upon God to rise up and move forward, and Moshe calls upon God to return to the camp. This teaches, say Hazal, that both were necessary: “When the time came to travel, the cloud pillar would uproot from its place on God’s word, but it did not have permission to move forward until Moshe told God (to rise up); it is thus fulfilled, ‘by the word of God’ and ‘by the word of Moshe’” (Sifre Zuta 10, emphasis added).
God can give us all the systems and point us in the right direction, but if we don’t partner in the shaping and articulation of the vision, we will never journey forth; we will never fully be able to bring the Torah from the foot of Mt. Sinai into the larger world. I know many people who complain that they go to shul and leave uninspired. “Davening just doesn’t do it for me,” they say. But that is the root of the problem: they are waiting for davening—or learning Torah or keeping Shabbat—to do it for them. What is required is not just a sense of mission, but intentionality. We must take the mitzvot that God has given us—the direction that God is pointing us towards—and be intentional about them: how can I make this mitzvah achieve its purpose? How can I help realize the Divine purpose in what I do?
For so many of us, the failure goes beyond not being inspired when doing mitzvot. There is a much more pervasive and, indeed, pernicious problem. Namely, the Torah we learn and the mitzvot we perform do not sufficiently translate into the way we act in our “regular” lives, when we go to work, go shopping, log onto Facebook, or interact with our family, friends, or strangers. We are very good at compartmentalizing our lives, at leaving the Torah at the foot of Mt. Sinai and journeying forth without the ark of God to accompany us.
The key is to realize that carrying forth the ark will not happen on its own. The ark will only move forward, and God’s presence will only move with it, if we call upon it to do so. The cloud did not have permission to move, it could not transition into the real world, until Moshe became a partner in bringing God into the process. This requires an enormous amount of work, planning, setting of goals, and developing strategies. It is just like going to war, except that this is a war to bring God’s name into the world, to act in ways that serve as a model of religious and ethical behavior. Whatever we do, it demands that we not expect the Torah that we have learned and the mitzvot that we have performed to do the work for us. We must call upon the ark to move; we must shape or direct our actions to reflect the Torah, its values, and its mandates. We must move forward, and we must call on God to move forward with us. Thus it will be fulfilled, “by the word of God” and “by the word of Moshe.”