Sent: Friday, June 04, 2004 2:15 AM
Subject: Netvort : parshas Beha'aloscha, 5764

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                   By Rabbi Joshua (invitingly known as The Hoffer) Hoffman

In this week's parsha, as the nation is about to begin its journey to the Holy Land, Moshe turns to his father-in-law Yisro and invites him to join them on the trip. As Moshe puts it, "We are journeying to the place of which God has said 'I shall give it to you.' Go with us and we shall treat you well, etc." (Bamidbar 10:29). Yisro initially declines the offer, saying that he will go back to his land and his family (verse 30). Moshe then says to him, "Please do not forsake us, inasmuch as you have known our encampments in the wilderness, and you have been as eyes for us" (verse 31). Rabbi Naphtoli Zevi Yehudoh Berlin - the Netziv - mentions, in his commentary Ha'amek Davar to these verses, that there is a dispute in the Talmud regarding when this incident actually took place - before or after the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai. In either case, says the Netziv, it is clear from other place in the Torah that Yisro did go home, and that he eventually returned to join the nation in the wilderness. Whenever it happened, however, we need to understand why it was so important for the Torah to record this incident here, as the nation was preparing to enter Eretz Yisroel? To answer this question, we need to look at the verses immediately after this incident.

After Moshe's reply to Yisro, the Torah records that the nation then began its journey : "They journeyed from the Mountain of God a three-day distance, and the aron of the covenant journeyed before them a three-day distance to search out for them a resting place, etc." The Torah then describes the process of the ark journeying before the people, and its coming to a rest when the journey was interrupted. These two verses, which describe the process, are set off, traditionally, by an inverted letter 'nun' on each side. The Torah then records that the people complained against God, and a fire from God came down and consumed some of them. Following that incident, the 'asafsuf, or 'rabble' among the people had a desire, and then the people as a whole complained about the manna they had been eating, and asked for meat. The rabbis tell us that the purpose of the two inverted 'nuns' is to make a separation between the various incidents in which the people sinned against God.

 What, exactly, was the incident of sin that preceded the first inverted 'nun?' There is a dispute between the commentators on this issue, but according to Ramban, the sin consisted in the alacrity with which the nation left Mt. Sinai, in the manner of a child who runs from his school house. Rabbi Yitzchok Kara, in his commentary Toldos Yitzchok, writes that the inverted 'nuns' serve to indicate that through the actions of the people, the world, in a sense, had been turned on its head. Whereas Yisro, who had been a non-Jew, converted and became a good Jew, the rest of the nation sinned against God three times. This explanation is particularly potent if we follow the Ramban's understanding of the first sin as being the lack of desire by the nation to continue studying Torah, as evidenced by their running from Mt. Sinai. Yisro, on the other hand, ran towards Mt. Sinai, wishing to convert and accept the Torah. Rabbi Kara says that this was the meaning of what Moshe told Yisro, 'and you have been as eyes for us." What he meant to say was that Yisro should travel with the people and serve as a model for fear of God. Parenthetically, it should be noted that Rabbi Kara does not point out who the 'asafsuf' mentioned in the verse following the second converted 'nun' were. However, the rabbis identified them as the 'erev rav,' or mixed multitude, the converts who Moshe had brought along with the rest of the people at the time of the redemption from Egypt. Perhaps in light of this factor we could suggest that Moshe wished Yisro to serve as an example for the other converts among the people, and the inverted 'nuns' are an indication of the contrast between Yisro and them. However, as mentioned, Rabbi Kara does not take this approach.

Rabbi Moshe Sofer, in his commentary Chasam Sofer, does not mention the remarks of Rabbi Kara, but carries his idea further by referring to the remark of the rabbis in the Talmud at the end of tractate Kiddushin (70b) that converts are as difficult for the Jews as is 'sapachas,' which is a form of tzora'as, commonly translated as leprosy. Tosafos there bring the explanation of Rabbi Avrohom the convert, who says that converts are more careful in mitzvos than Jews who are born into the faith, and this reflects badly upon the people and invites divine retribution. Here, too, says Chasam Sofer, the superiority of Yisro's deportment to that of the rest of the nation was an element in the divine retribution that followed. Actually, this Talmudic statement is problematic, because it seems to contradict another Talmudic statement (Pesachim 87b) according to which the Jews went into exile so that converts should join them, which implies that converts are good for the nation. Many answers have been given to this apparent contradiction. Perhaps the simplest resolution of the sources is that converts are to serve as an example to the people in their fear of God, as Moshe asked Yisro to do. If the nation acts as it should, then converts serve as a blessing. If they do not act properly, however, then the superior deportment of converts serves as an accusatory factor against the rest of the nation.

 Perhaps, then, this is why the section of Moshe's request to Yisro to join the nation in its journey to the Holy Land is mentioned at this point, to serve as a  paradigm for converts in future generations as the nation went through its various exiles in search of its missing members. The section of the Torah set off by the inverted 'nuns' is recited in Ashkenazic communities whenever the Torah is read in a minyan. The first verse is recited when the Torah is taken out of the ark, and the sections verse is recited when it is returned. In this way, this section of the Torah serves a guide for the people throughout the generations, even while they are in exile, bidding them to follow the way of God in their daily lives. By placing the section of the Torah that contrasts Yisro's actions as a convert with those of the nation as a whole, the Torah is exhorting future generations to learn from Yisro's actions, so that converts will indeed be a blessing for the nation.

Please address all correspondence to the author (Rabbi Hoffman) with the following address - JoshHoff @

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