Questions and Suggested Answers
Based on the writings of Nehama Leibowitz
“When the ark set forth...” (10-35)
This comment is taken from Tractate Shabbat 115: 116. “for this section the Holy One, blessed be He, provided signs above and below (inserted letter Nuns at the beginning and the end) to teach that this is not its place... so why was this chapter listed here? In order to provide a break between the first (mention) of punishment and the second (mention) of punishment. What is the second mention of punishment? ‘And the people complained’ (11-1). What is the first mention of punishment? “and they journeyed away from the mountain of the Lord” (10-33). Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina explained (this verse to mean) that they turned away from following the Lord.”
Rashi comments on the above talmudic text: That they turned away from God (10-33) - during the three days of their journey the mixed multitude sought a pretext to rebel against God by having complained about an alleged lack of meat.
(refer to Ramban’s comment on “When the ark set forth” (10-35).)
Based on Rashi’s above commentary in the talmud, what are the two punishments between which the two verses with the inverted nuns intercede?
Punishment #1 - The nation journeyed away from Sinai and during that time they made heard their dubious complaint regarding the meat (listed later in 11-4,5,6).
Punishment #2 - From the verse “And the people complained”(11-1) we see that the people were seeking a pretext to stray from the path of the almighty.
What are Ramban’s objections to Rashi’s interpretation of the punishments?
Ramban stresses the fact that the text (chapter 11) lists first the narrative of the people complaining followed immediately by the incident of cries for meat. Ramban takes issue over the fact that Rashi places the latter incident and transfers it to having occurred earlier as part of verse 33 in the previous chapter. How can that which is listed last become identified as Punishment #1? Given the fact that these two punishments are listed one immediately after the other, you cannot (according to Ramban) apply the rule that “there is no chronological order in the Torah”.
Can you detect in the language usage of the text a supporting argument to Rashi’s interpretation regarding punishment #1? (use as a reference Rashi’s comment on Genesis (21-1) “And God remembered...”)
It is telling to note the verb form used in (11-4) - it is the past perfect form. Verse 4 reads “...had felt a lusting” thus “had” is a reference back to a prior event i.e. verse (10-33).
What are the two punishments according to Ramban?
According to Ramban there are actually three punishments referred to in the text:
Punishment #1 - They fled from Mt. Sinai (33-10). Ramban cites a midrash that compares their flight to school children running from school to escape any possible additional learning.
Punishment #2 - From (11-1,2) the people were grieved over their plight deep in the desert wondering where will they derive basic sustenance and when will they be able to leave the desert.
Punishment #3 - From (11-4,5) the people were complaining about the alleged lack of meat.
Ramban points out that the verse with the inverted nuns were placed between punishments #1 and #2 in order to avoid a listing of three consecutive sins which would then be giving the appearance of a set inexorable pattern of sinning (hazaka).
What is the difference in Rashi’s and Ramban’s understanding of the work “punishment”?
Rashi: It refers to a sin for which immediate punishment is meted out.
Ramban: It refers to a sin for which punishment occurs either immediately or at a later time.
Prepared by: Rabbi Mordechai Spiegelman veteran yeshiva educator (USA) now residing in Jerusalem