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!

  • 2
    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
  • 1
    (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

A friend pointed out to me the Rosh (ad. loc.) gives the following explanation:

י"ל כי הפורענות הא' הוא ויסעו מהר ה' כלו' מאחרי ה' כתינוק הבורח מבית הספר כך עשו ישראל אמרו שמא רוצה להרבות לנו תורה אחרת ומצוה אחרת מה עשו חזרו לאחוריהם שמנה מסעות והקב"ה נפרע מהם ומתו מהם הרבה וזהו הפורענו'‏

An explanation is the first punishment is [alluded to] in the verse "they journeyed from the Mountain of Hashem". Meaning, away from Hashem, like a child running away from school. Thus did the Jews, they said: "Maybe [Hashem] wants to add more Torah and more mitzvos". What did they do? They travelled back eight journeys, and Hashem paid them back and many of them died. This was the punishment.

Chasam Sofer (Derashos II p. 311b s.v. כתיב, Sefer HaZicharon p. 52) gives another approach. He writes that unlike other sins, where the punishment awaits for a later time, a person who neglects Torah study is in fact directly hurting himself. Therefore, 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 the yoke of Torah from himself is given the yoke of malchus. He interprets this to mean immediately, and it refers to foreign invaders. He 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 Maayan 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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