Today we begin the last book of the Torah. The Rabbis, who fixed the Sedarot, planned the order of reading very carefully, so that this Sidra always falls before Tisha Be’av. This is most appropriate, since it contains the verse which begins with the word , Eichah. This is the opening word of the Scroll of Lamentations which we read in the evening, as Tisha b’Av comes in. The word EICHAH, which literally means HOW, has become the biblical exclamation, denoting distress and despair. The Almighty used the word AYECKAH, meaning ‘Where are you?’ when he searched for Adam in the Garden of Eden. It has exactly the same letters. Only the vowels are different. This similarity suggests that when we sin and hide from God, we bring upon ourselves circumstances which cause us a great deal of pain and suffering.
Moses begins the Sidra by praising and blessing the people with beautiful words. He wants to give them encouragement for the journey ahead, under the leadership of Joshua. Only after the praise, does he goes on to rebuke and criticise them.
The lesson we learn from Moses, is that it is only advisable to correct or rebuke a person, if we have a healthy and trusting relationship with them and if we include praise and positive comments in equal measure. The commentators ask why Moses waited till the 40th year of his leadership to rebuke the Children of Israel for past mistakes. Surely, he could have done this earlier, at an appropriate moment. The reason for this timing was that Moses had reached the pinnacle of his success just before his death. He had just defeated SICHON AND OG, the two important and strong Kings on the Eastern side of the Jordan. He had gained the people’s trust for the first time. It is sad that it happened only in the last month of his life. Throughout Moses’ leadership of 40 years, he had to battle against a great deal of distrust.
The section of the Levi begins with his lengthy rebuke. It opens with the word EICHAH, in chapter 1 verse 12. He describes the people’s behaviour which has caused him a great deal of distress It reads: “How can I bear, unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering.”
This is what he reprimanded the Israelites about. He said to them that the reason that he had found it so difficult to lead them was because they were prone to quarrel amongst themselves. Rashi spells out this complaint in greater detail. He says that TORCHACHEM means that Moses complained that when their disputes came to court, no one was willing to concede defeat. Even after the judges had made their final decision, the defeated party would say: ‘I can produce more witnesses and further proofs that I am right and my opponent is wrong’. MAS’ACHEM means that they were incessantly suspicious of Moses and attacked him personally. They said that Moses was constantly busy planning evil against them. The third term, RIVCHEM, means that they protested all the time about the journey, and wanted to return to Egypt.
In chapter 1 verse 44, we come to the end of Moses’ speech regarding the debacle of the mission of the 12 spies. This had caused the catastrophic delay of 40 years before the conquest of the land. Moses reminded the surviving second generation, that after the decree had been made, some people defied God and attempted to conquer the land. He said that their attempt ended in dismal failure. The verse reads: Then the Amorites who lived in those hills came out against you, like so many bees, they chased you, and they crushed you from Seir to Chormah”. Seir was the name most frequently applied to the Edomite mountains east of the Jordan; here it probably means a mountain near Jerusalem. Chormah was a place in the general vicinity of Beer Sheva. In other words, the battle between the Israelites in the Canaanites extended over quite a large area. From this terrible defeat we can see that there was no way that the Israelites could enter the land, in the second year after the Exodus.
The reference to bees in this verse is most striking. A famous commentator has written as follows: Bees have honey, but also a sting. When the owner of the beehive goes to remove the honey, he takes branches and sets them on fire, which brings up fumes of smoke. The bees flee, which gives the owner the opportunity to remove the honey in peace and safety. The bees are gone. However, when a stranger approaches the beehive, without authority, wanting to steal the honey from the beehive, he is afraid to start a fire. He wants to remain undetected. So he approaches the beehive without any protection. Instead of obtaining the honey, the bees sting him, so that he is forced to escape with his last strength.
Moses said that this was the fate of the MA’APILIM, who decided to go it alone and conquer the land without authority. They did so without the protection of the Ark of the Covenant. They did so in defiance of God’s decision. If they had gone into the land as proprietors, to possess the land flowing with milk and honey, when God had originally commanded them to do so, they would have had the pillar of cloud walking in front of them and the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord in their midst. No one would have been able to withstand their power. The Canaanites would have been burnt alive. The Children of Israel would have taken the honey with no one to make them afraid. But when those bitter people tried to conquer the land like thieves, they brought upon themselves only disgrace and disastrous defeat. The key to success is obedience to God, at the right time and in the correct manner.