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In Parshas Behalosecha, famously the verses 10:35-36 are bookended with two inverted "נ's":

׆ וַיְהִ֛י בִּנְסֹ֥עַ הָאָרֹ֖ן וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֑ה קוּמָ֣ה ׀ ה' וְיָפֻ֙צוּ֙ אֹֽיְבֶ֔יךָ וְיָנֻ֥סוּ מְשַׂנְאֶ֖יךָ מִפָּנֶֽיךָ׃ וּבְנֻחֹ֖ה יֹאמַ֑ר שׁוּבָ֣ה ה' רִֽבְב֖וֹת אַלְפֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ ׆ {פ}

When the Ark was to set out, Moshe would say: Advance, Hashem, may Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You! And when it halted, he would say: Return, O Hashem, You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands!

The Gemara in Shabbos 116b brings Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel who notes that the reason for this practise is to demarcate between two calamitous occurrences that happened with the Bnei Yisroel.

רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר: עֲתִידָה פָּרָשָׁה זוֹ שֶׁתֵּיעָקֵר מִכָּאן וְתִכָּתֵב בִּמְקוֹמָהּ. וְלָמָּה כְּתָבָהּ כָּאן — כְּדֵי לְהַפְסִיק בֵּין פּוּרְעָנוּת רִאשׁוֹנָה לְפוּרְעָנוּת שְׁנִיָּיה. פּוּרְעָנוּת שְׁנִיָּיה מַאי הִיא — ״וַיְהִי הָעָם כְּמִתְאוֹנְנִים״. פּוּרְעָנוּת רִאשׁוֹנָה — ״וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהַר ה׳״,

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: In the future, this portion will be uprooted from here, where it appears, and will be written in its proper place. And why was it written here, even though it discusses the travels of the children of Israel, and the portion before it does not? It is in order to demarcate between the first punishment and the second punishment. What is the second punishment that appears immediately afterward? It is the verse: “And the people complained wickedly in God’s ears, and God heard and became angry, and the fire of God burned in them and it consumed the edge of the camp” (Numbers 11:1). What is the first punishment? It is the verse: “And they traveled from the mountain of God [mehar Hashem] for three days” (Numbers 10:33) (Sefaria translation and additional notation)

With regards to the first punishment, Tosafos likens the Bnei Yisroel's departure from Har Sinai to that of a child fleeing from school. In other words, Har Sinai was a lofty and incredibly holy experience where the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, rested. Following Mattan Torah, the Shechinah would move and take up residence in the Mishkan. The Bnei Yisroel who were scared of this powerful Presence did not want it to follow them after Mattan Torah, and it is this reaction that is viewed a punishable offence.

The second occurrence was that of the "misonenim" - those that complained bitterly against Hashem. What followed was a raging fire sent to the outskirts of the camp to consume those that complained.

At least from my angle, the second scenario makes sense. It was a Heavenly fire sent to punish those that complained against the actions of G-d, but what was so bad about the seemingly natural reaction of the first incident, and why was it necessary to insert such a dramatic pause between the two?

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  • That doesn't seem to be the inference from the mefarshim?
    – Dov
    Jun 11, 2023 at 11:41

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Regarding the first punishment, the Rabbeinu Bahya (Bamidbar 10:33) explains this Gemara to mean that as soon as they left the "environment of Sinai", the people deviated from following G-d. The Rabbeinu Bahya writes that they fled from the nearness of G-d. The result of this is that different desires began to surface, the desire to eat meat etc..

The Rabbeinu Bahya then goes on to explain why the Gemara lists this as the first punishment.

Why did the sages in Shabbat have to interpret events in this manner? It was to teach us that as soon as the people moved away from Mount Sinai they no longer felt that they were under the immediate benevolent supervision of Hashem. They believed that this kind of supervision existed only right at the Mountain of G’d. The expression הר ה' as opposed to הר האלו-הים is so unusual that the sages felt the essence of the move was “away from the Torah element associated with that mountain.”

See also the commentary of Ramban (Bamidbar 10:35):

But the meaning of this interpretation [of the Rabbis that they set forward from the mount of the Eternal indicates a punishment, is based on that which] they found in the Agadah, that “they set forward from Mount Sinai with joy, just like a child who runs away from school, saying: ‘Perhaps He will give us more commandments [if we stay]!” This then is the sense of the expression, And they set forward from the mount of the Eternal, meaning that their intention was to remove themselves from there because it was the mount of the Eternal. This is the first “punishment” [i.e., the first sin, as explained further on], and then He interrupted [with the section on the ark] in order that there should not be three punishments one after the other, so that it would have established a basis for further punishment. He called the [first] sin “punishment” even though no actual punishment occurred to them because of it, [but since they deserved to have been punished, it is called a “punishment”]. Perhaps were it not for this sin of theirs He would have brought them into the Land immediately [and so there was indeed a “punishment”].

The Haggadah (Magid, Dayenu) says:

If He had given us the Shabbat and had not brought us close to Mount Sinai; [it would have been] enough for us.

The Kos Shel Eliyahu, Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Harush explains this to mean that

By bringing the people close to Mount Sinai, the Israelites acquired a sense of holiness and came to understand that G-d wishes them to strive for holiness.

What the Kos Shel Eliyahu says, seems to be in line with the explanation of the Rabbeinu Bahya. As long as they were in the vicinity of Sinai, they would feel the holiness. When they left this environment, people might have lost this special feeling. They just experienced something fascinating. G-d revealed Himself to the Jewish people. How to act aftwerwards?

This seems to align with Tosfos' idea.

The same notion is brought down by the Alter of Slabodka, in the sefer Ohr HaTzafun (Maamar Chovas HaDveikus BaTorah, Bamidbar 2). The Alter of Slabodka writes:

אלא בעל כורחנו שהפירוש הוא שאמנם עצם פעולת הנסיעה מהר סיני היתה כהוגן ועל פי ה׳, אבל בשמים ראו בתוך מצפוני לבם שלא הרגישו את הצער הדרוש על אשר עליהם להינתק מהמקום שלמדו בו תורה. ואמנם גם הליכתם היתה לשם מצוה, כדי להיכנס לארץ ולקיים מצות ישיבה, כפי שנצטוו עליה, אבל היה צריך להיות קשה להם לפרוש ממצות תלמוד תורה שהיא כנגד כולם, שכל הפורש ממנה כפורש מן החיים.

It was difficult for the people to withdraw from the place where they just received the Torah. The Shechinah moved on, but the people wanted to stay at the sacred place where they have just received the Holy Torah. The rebellion was punished by G-d, to make the journey three days instead of one day (see also Rashi sv. מאחרי ה).

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