Rashi on Bamidbar 10:35 writes based on Shabbos 116a that Vayehi Bineso'ah Ha'aron is moved out of its proper place is to separate between two punishments.

ויהי בנסע הארן" - עשה לו סמניות מלפניו ומלאחריו לומר שאין זה מקומו ולמה נכתב כאן כדי להפסיק בין פורעניות לפורעניות וכו' כדאיתא בכל כתבי הקדש

The punishment that came after is is very clear. In 11:33 many of the Jews were killed for complaining about the Man and their lack of meat.

הבשר עודנו בין שניהם טרם יכרת ואף יהוה חרה בעם ויך יהוה בעם מכה רבה מאד

However, its not really clear what the punishment that happened before Vayehi Bineso'ah Ha'aron is. Many of the Meforshim such as Tosfos in Shabbos there explains the Gemara there to be saying that it's the sin of running away from Har Sinai like a child running away from school.

פורענות ראשונה ויסעו וא"ר חנינא שסרו מאחרי השם. פי'. בקונטרס שמאז התחילו לשאול בשר ואומר ר"י דאין נ"ל כן אלא פורענות ראשונה כדאמר במדרש (ילמדנו) ויסעו שנסעו מהר סיני דרך שלשת ימים כתינוק היוצא מבית הספר שבורח לו והולך לו כך היו בורחים מהר סיני דרך שלשת ימים לפי שלמדו הרבה תורה בסיני אמר הקב"ה נסמוך פורענות לפורענות לאו. אלא נפסוק פרשת ויהי בנסוע הארון

But that isn't a punishment. That's a sin! The Gemara and Rashi are explicit that there is a punishment right before Vayehi Bineso'ah Ha'aron!

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    How do you know פורעניות means punishment? – Double AA Jun 8 '17 at 12:15
  • @Double AA See the Ramban in my answer below – robev Jun 8 '17 at 23:06
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    (Shameless plug for a devar Torah I wrote, please delete if inappropriate). For a more in depth presentation of this topic see here: parshaponders.com/2017/06/08/behaalosecha-5777 – robev Jun 8 '17 at 23:46

Ramban to Numbers 10:35

וקרא החטא "פורענות" אע"פ שלא אירע להם ממנו פורענות ושמא אלמלא חטאם זה היה מכניסם לארץ מיד

Chazal call the sin "punishment" even though no punishment occured, maybe because if not for this sin [Hashem] would have brought them into the land of Israel immediately

Chasam Sofer to Shabbos 116a gives another approach (I don't have the exact quote). He writes that person who neglects Torah study is in fact hurting himself, so the sin itself is the punishment (see there where he goes into detail about what this means). He invokes Avos 3:5 that says whoever removes from himself the yoke of Torah is given the yoke of malchus. He interprets this to mean foreign invaders, and uses this to explain why specifically these two verses were used to create the interruption. He writes that Moshe sensed that the Jews were in danger due to their lack of desire to learn Torah, so he immediately prayed “let your enemies scatter, etc.”

Rav Shimon Schwab in Mayan Beis HaShoaiva also offers a different approach. He asks why did the Midrash compare the Jews to children running from school? Because children don't appreciate the significance of what they learn. That's why they run, they view it negatively, and only in adulthood do they appreciate what they were taught. So too the Jews, they didn't appreciate the Torah being taught to them. This is the punishment that the gemarra is referring to. Not to feel full satisfaction and enjoyment from spirituality, there’s no worse punishment than that.

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