Many and sundry are the crises of the generation of the Exodus, but they usually follow a predictable pattern: 1) the wandering Israelites act out; 2) God wants/ begins to punish them; 3) Moses intercedes; 4) God is mollified; 5) the journey continues. Wash, rinse, repeat–actually, skip the rinse; water is precious in the desert. And then we get to the Sin of the Spies (Numbers 13-14).
In this week’s Torah portion, the pattern is broken. Certainly, Moses is historically successful, in that he saves the rest of the Jewish people from being immediately wiped out, but the generation that he led out of Egypt is condemned to die in the wilderness, and the journey to the Promised Land, now in its second year, will last four decades. What sets this crisis apart from all the others?
The most glaring distinction is the naked blade dancing in the Israelites’ nightmares (14:3): “Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder.” The concern is not the quality or quantity of food or water, but death by sword. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when, after being decreed to wander for forty years, some Israelites decide that they are ready for conquest, despite Moses’ warning (ibid. v. 43): “For the Amalekites and the Canaanites will face you there. Because you have turned away from the LORD, he will not be with you and you will fall by the sword.” They ignore him and are thoroughly beaten.
Still, it is clear that the people are brave enough to face these enemies on the battlefield; in fact, just over a year prior, at Rephidim, “Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword” (Exodus 17:13). Even amid the brief civil war over the Golden Calf at Horeb, Moses finds loyalists eager to fulfill the command, “Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, and slay every man his brother, and every man his fellow, and every man his friend” (ibid. 32:27). In fact, the same four individuals lead both at Rephidim and at Horeb: Moses, Aaron, Hur and Joshua. When ten of the Spies slander the Holy Land here, their opposition is none other than Moses, Aaron, Caleb and Joshua. And who is Caleb? None other than Hur’s grandson (I Chronicles 4:4, 15). In fact the Talmud notes that Hur’s unambiguous opposition to the Golden Calf got him killed (Sanhedrin 7a), while Caleb used subtlety to reclaim the rhetorical momentum from the Spies for Moses (Sota 35a). So why does the Gang of Four fail here?
Let’s look at the preceding portions of the Book of Numbers. Throughout them, we see an army being organized, the term showing up no less than 63 times. It is no longer an ad hoc force, like that at Rephidim or Horeb; it is strictly regimented and tallied, and it clearly excludes one tribe: Levi. In the census, the encampments, the traveling, the dedication of the altar, the dispatching of the spies, Levi is excluded. Of course, this is because Levi forms its own “army,” the special forces which guard, transport and maintain the Tabernacle; but it is not surprising that the other tribes feel disheartened, especially considering that the Levites in particular are the fearless troops who answer Moses’ call after the Sin of the Golden Calf. The Israelites are worried about their lives, their wives, their children–and Moses the Levite does not know what to say to them, since his children and grandchildren will not be on the battlefield. This time, he cannot convince them. 38 years later, we find a very different picture. Moses sends Phineas, Aaron’s grandson, to war with the rest of the Israelites (31:6), and Moses himself goes to war against Sihon and Og (21:34).
We are no longer a tribal society, but the principle remains the same: a nation cannot be cohesive and complete unless the challenges of protecting and serving the public are shared by everyone. There are, of course, many ways to serve; but a society in which certain sectors disassociate themselves from the burdens of the nation must inevitably dissolve.