Parsahat Behaalotecha: Attitude is Altitude
The Torah in Parashat Behaalotecha tells of Beneh Yisrael’s departure from Mount Sinai, where they had been encamped for nearly a year: "Va’yis’u Me’Har Hashem" – "They journeyed from the Mountain of G-d" (10:33).
The Talmud Yerushalmi, in Masechet Ta’anit, comments that Beneh Yisrael left Mount Sinai like children run from school, hurrying before the teacher can teach more or give more assignments. This comment appears also in the Midrash, which famously describes Beneh Yisrael as leaving Sinai "Ke’tinok Ha’bore’ah Mi’bet Ha’sefer" – "like a child running away from school." They left Sinai quickly, fearful of receiving more Misvot.
After telling of the journey from Sinai, the Torah presents the two verses of "Va’yehi Bi’nso’a Ha’aron" and "U’be’nuho Yomar," the pronouncements which Moshe made when the nation began journeying, and when they encamped. In the Torah scroll, this pair of verses is surrounded by two unusual symbols – an upside-down letter "Nun." The Gemara explains that these symbols were added to indicate that these two verses do not actually belong here, and they were placed here "to separate between one catastrophe and another catastrophe." Before these two verses, the Torah tells of Beneh Yisrael’s departure from Sinai, and after these verses, it tells of their complaints during travel, for which they were severely punished. The Torah did not want these two calamities to appear one right after the other, and so it interrupted the narrative with the two verses of "Va’yehi Bi’nso’a Ha’aron" and "U’be’nuho Yomar."
It emerges, then, that Beneh Yisrael’s departure from Sinai, their "running" like "a child running away from school," is considered a "catastrophe" – a catastrophe so severe that the Torah found it necessary to make a separation between this story and the catastrophic episode that followed.
We must wonder, how could Beneh Yisrael’s departure from Sinai have possibly resembled children running away from school? Beneh Yisrael did not leave Mount Sinai until they were instructed to do so. The Torah in this Parasha describes in great detail how Beneh Yisrael strictly followed G-d, journeying when the special cloud which signified G-d’s presence rose, and encamping when the cloud descended. They did not leave Sinai a minute before G-d wanted them to. In what way are they considered to have "escaped"?
Rav Yehuda Leib Chasman (1869-1936), in Or Yahel, explains that indeed, Beneh Yisrael did not outwardly do anything wrong. They left Sinai precisely when they were told to, and not a moment earlier. The problem was in their mind, in their attitude. They left gleefully, relieved that they would not be receiving any more commands. This was the "catastrophe" – that they celebrated their departure from Sinai.
Rav Chasman developed this idea further by noting the contrast between Beneh Yisrael’s departure from Sinai and their departure from the shores of the sea a year earlier. The Torah tells in the Book of Shemot (15:22), "Va’yasa Moshe Et Yisrael Mi’Yam Suf" – "Moshe had Yisrael journey from the Sea of Reeds." The Rabbis explained that Moshe needed to force Beneh Yisrael to leave the seashore, because they wanted to remain there to collect all the riches from the Egyptians’ chariots, which had washed ashore after the Egyptian army was drowned at sea. When it came to precious jewels, Beneh Yisrael were eager to stay to collect more; when it came to Misvot, they were eager to leave before they received more. This was the "catastrophe" – that they showed greater affection for material goods than for spiritual goods; that they were more attracted to riches than to Misvot.
The proper attitude towards Misvot is reflected earlier in the Parasha, in the story of the Teme’im – those who were impure and were thus unable to offer the Pesach sacrifice (9:1-14). These men approached Moshe and bemoaned their inability to participate in this precious Misva. G-d responded favorably to their request, and granted them the opportunity to bring the sacrifice one month later, on the 14th of Iyar (an occasion that is commonly called "Pesach Sheni" – "the second Pesach"). This is the kind of attitude we should have towards Misvot – a desire to do more, not a desire to do less.
There is an expression, "Attitude is altitude." Meaning, the way we grow is by developing a proper attitude and mindset. Our actions are not always going to be perfect, but we must ensure that at least we approach life with the correct attitude, with our priorities in place, with an awareness of what’s more important and what’s less important. Like Beneh Yisrael, we are not able to remain forever at "the Mountain of G-d," engrossed in Torah and Misvot at all times. Nevertheless, we should aspire to the level of sanctity and devotion which our ancestors attained at that special site, and make Torah and Misvot our highest priority and greatest wish.