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Excuses, Excuses

Written by d fine

Perek 9 of Chumash Bamidbar (in our sedra) opens with HaShem commanding the Bnei Yisrael to perform the korban pesach. As the pasuk says, this command occurred in Nissan of Bnei Yisrael’s second year in the desert. Interestingly enough, when one looks back to the opening of parshas Bamidbar, one notices that that command took place in the month of Iyar. This means that chronologically, part of Beha’aloscha occurred before parshas Bamidbar. This should not scare us too much, for we have a rule that ein mukdam ume’uchar baTorah; the Torah’s events are not necessarily in chronological order. But it does beg the question; why is it that this command to offer the korban pesach is left until parshas Beha’aloscha and does not open Chumash Bamidbar?


[1] deals with this question. In his words: ‘and why did the Chumash not begin with this section (I.e. that of the korban pesach)? Because it conveys the shortcomings of Bnei Yisrael; for the entire forty years that they were in the desert, they only offered this solitary korban pesach.’ In short, HaShem did not want a Chumash to begin with discussing the failings of the Bnei Yisrael

.[2] But there is a problem here. Where exactly is the failure of Bnei Yisrael here? (We shall explain) Surely, the reason the Bnei Yisrael did not offer the korban pesach in the wilderness was because many of them were uncircumcised, and so were not allowed to offer the korban pesach. And why were they uncircumcised? The gemarra

[3] gives two reasons. Either because it was too dangerous to perform a bris milah in the wilderness with the constant travelling; especially since they were not aware how long they would encamp in any given place for. Or secondly, because the northern wind did not blow; a wind which is conducive to performing a bris milah in the desert. Either way, why were Bnei Yisrael at fault here? We shall offer several answers to this question, before approaching our theme.
The Ramban

[4] pins his answer on the continuation of the aforementioned gemarra. In its second answer (I.e. the northern winds answer), the gemarra goes on to explain why these winds were not blowing at the time. It says that the reason was because Bnei Yisrael were ‘disgraced’ by HaShem, as it were, due either to the chet ha’egel (Rashi) or to the sin of the spies (Tosafos, Ramban). This is where Bnei Yisrael’s fault lies; their sin caused the lack of northern winds and so no circumcisions, which, in turn, meant that they could not offer the korban pesach in the wilderness. The Chizkuni

[5] attributes this ‘shortcoming/failure’ of Bnei Yisrael further back than the sin of the spies. He highlights the sin of the mis’onenim (those who complained about the speed of the journey; see Bamidbar 11:1) as that which delayed the entry into Eretz Yisrael by a month, which, in turn, provided a window of time for the sin of the spies to occur – which delayed them another forty years. Thus, it was the fact that Bnei Yisrael extended their time in the desert (in which they were uncircumcised and so could not perform korban pesach) which put them in the position of not being able to perform the korban pesach. Had they entered Eretz Yisrael as quickly as planned, they would have been able to perform bris milah and offer the korban pesach. The Yeri’as Shlomo

[6] offers a different approach. He says that the Leviim braved the conditions and performed bris milah even in the desert. And the fault here either lay at doorstep of the Leviim (who were circumcised yet failed to perform the korban pesach), or at the doorsteps of the rest of the Bnei Yisrael, who, unlike the Leviim, failed to circumcise themselves. However, as the Maharal

[7] points out, none of these answers are necessarily sufficient for Rashi. For Rashi in Shemos (12:25) informs us that HaShem’s first command to the Bnei Yisrael to offer the korban pesach (the command was given when they were in Egypt) was only applicable when the Bnei Yisrael should enter Eretz Yisrael. So according to Rashi, even if they left themselves uncircumcised, the Bnei Yisrael were not at fault for not offering the korban pesach in the desert, for they were not obligated to do so until they entered Eretz Yisrael.So where is the fault here that this portion had to be moved to Beha’aloscha? Tosafos

[8] asks the same question, and answers along the same lines as the Chizkuni; that the fault aspect was due to the sin of the spies; had they not sinned then they would have entered Eretz Yisrael immediately and would have been offering the korban pesach each year.
However, the Maharal says that Tosafos’s answer is unnecessary, and proceeds to lay down a vital principle which has far-reaching applications upon our outlook on mitzvos. Our question on Rashi (and all the answers we have given) relied on the premise that Bnei Yisrael were at fault here for not offering the korban pesach in the desert. Where did we get this premise from? From Rashi telling us that the Torah did not want to discuss the korban pesach at the beginning of sefer Bamidbar, for this would speak about the failings (genusan) of the Bnei Yisrael. The Maharal shatters this premise, but to appreciate his answer, we need a slight introduction.
We tend to look at our Jewish lives as full of unpleasant obligations. We do not see mitzvos as ‘opportunities,’ or ‘great merits,’ but rather as ‘burdens’ or ‘unwanted responsibilities.’ One consequence of such an outlook is that when we do not manage to perform a mitzvah, then as long as the reasons for us failing to perform the mitzvah are out of our control (‘ones’ in Hebrew), then we do not feel particularly bad about missing that mitzvah. On the contrary, we might even feel good about ourselves that we managed to get away with not having to perform that mitzvah, yet ‘since it was not my fault, I’m not responsible for missing that mitzvah.’ This is an immature way of looking at mitzvos, for it focuses upon being ‘at fault or not,’ as opposed to really valuing a mitzvah for what it is. If we really valued a mitzvah and understood what a mitzvah is/does, then we would be upset at missing an opportunity to perform a mitzvah even if it was due to matters beyond our control. This, says the Maharal, is the key to answering our Rashi. Bnei Yisrael might have been at fault for not offering the korban pesach, or they might not have been at fault. But fault is irrelevant here. The fact that Bnei Yisrael did not have the merits of having offered the korban pesach throughout the period they were in the desert is itself a shortcoming/failure, even if they were not at fault whatsoever. Missing out on a mitzvah is tragic even if you are not at fault at all.
This is a very important point, and we shall expand on it slightly. Failing to achieve something due to matters beyond one’s control merely means that one is not at fault for such a failing; but one has not achieved what he set out to achieve. For example, if one is doing a course and has a genuine truthful excuse as to why you did not turn up to class/exams each day, you might not be kicked off the course – but you will not be given a degree either. This concept explains the gemarra’s

[9] story about Hillel, who could not enter the beis hamedrash, and so lay on the skylight to try and hear the shiur. It was a snowy night, and Hillel froze up there, only to be resuscitated when the morning came and people noticed him lying there. This shows great enthusiasm for learning Torah, but the question is why did Hillel go to such lengths here; due to the bitter snow, he was exempt from doing such an act which could put his health in danger? The answer is our above principle. True, he was exempt, but that just means that he would not be held accountable for failing to learn Torah that night. But he would still miss out on the achievement and merits of learning Torah; and so he went beyond the letter of the law and lay on the skylight to hear the shiur.

This is a message to us all; to stop looking at our mitzvos in terms of fault, and more in terms of opportunities.
Have a great Shabbos,

[1] Rashi bamidbar 9:1. His source for this explanation is the Midrash Sifri.

[2] See the opening Rashi of Chumash Devarim for a similar point

[3] Gemarra Yevamos 71b-72a

[4] Ramban Bamidbar 9:1

[5] Chizkuni Bamidbar 9:1

[6] Yeri’as Shlomo Bamidbar 9:1. His commentary is in the Chumash which has eleven commentators on Rashi.

[7] Gur Aryeh Bamidbar 9:1

[8] Tosafos Kiddushin 37b ‘ho’il’

[9] Gemarra Yoma 35b

[10] Rabbi Tatz

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