The shocking information we learn about the Jewish people’s time in the desert makes even the gloomiest statistic of the Pew study look good in comparison. Nowadays, brit milah and Pesach are the two most widely observed positive Jewish rituals. It’s interesting to note that this not only a fact of contemporary Jewish sociology; it (coincidentally?) has halachic grounding as well. These two mitzvot are the only positive commandments whose neglect brings the punishment of karet. Karet, being ‘cut off’ from the Jewish people, is as much a natural consequence as it is a punishment for excluding oneself from the most basic rituals of Jewish identification. So it’s hard to swallow that it is these two commandments that the Jewish people neglected for almost their entire sojourn in the desert, as chapter 5 tells us.
The Talmud excuses the people’s behavior on medical grounds, but then undermines this explanation by noting that the same medical concerns are routinely ignored, with no negative consequences. Midrashim which suggest that at least part of the people were still circumcising themselves in the desert further suggest that this is an excuse rather than an explanation.
The deeper explanation is suggested by reading between the lines of chapter 5. More than focusing on the children who were uncircumcised, the text speaks about the sins of the parents, emphasizing the denial of their entry into the land, and repeating the term ‘derech’, path, three times over the course of four verses. It is not only that the sins of the generation of the desert brought them to get stuck on the way. It is, perhaps, more accurate to say that their desire to get stuck on the way, to stay safely on the path, without needing to handle the messiness of ‘arrival’, is what led them to sin. At the core of the sin of the spies lay the fear of realizing the dream, and especially, the responsibilities and messy challenges that realizing this dream would entail. These are the messy challenges symbolized by the bloody rituals of the Pesach and brit milah, rituals marking our assumption of responsibility, as individuals, and as a nation.
What is the ‘shame of Egypt’ that God removes with the ceremony in chapter 5? It is the desire, deep down, to remain a slave. To be a slave is simple, it’s uncomplicated. Like subsisting on the Manna, a slave existence doesn’t demand choices, only the ability to cope with the circumstances decreed upon you.
When the Jewish people enter the land of Israel, (then, and now) they are called upon to shed the ease of the slave existence, and don the mantle of responsibility, even when it’s a bloody mess
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