Sefer Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers, presents two very different pictures of the Children of Israel’s desert experience. It opens with an orderly, regimented, picture of an organized, divinely structured community, centered around the sanctuary as its sacred center. This orderly semblance is interrupted, not infrequently, by stories of rebellion, challenges to Moshe’s leadership, monumental complaints and seeming betrayal of the divine mission. Since this book, more than any of the books of the Torah, captures the essence of how the trek in the desert is to be remembered, should it be portrayed as a positive characterization of the relationship between God and the children of Israel or as an admonishment of their behavior.
And the Lord spoke to Moshe in the desert (bemidbar) of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting on the first of the second month in the second year of their going out from Egypt… (Numbers 1:1)
For one midrash, a creative reading of the word: “Bemidbar – In the desert”, serves as the inspiration for answering these questions. Its author takes a verse from the book of Jeremiah in which God admonishes the people for their ingratitude by asking them rhetorically whether He has acted negligently toward them as if He were a desert – “O generation, understand the word of the Lord, have I been a desert (hamidbar) for Israel or a land of thick darkness? (Jeremiah 2:31). The answer to this question in Jeremiah is obviously no. This theme is carried on in the following midrash:
And the Lord spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai.” (Numbers 1:1) This text is related to the following verse: “O generation, understand the word of the Lord, ‘Have I been a desert for Israel or a land of thick darkness?’” (Jeremiah 2:31),’” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, “Because you said to Moses: ‘Why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in the desert?’ (Numbers 21:5), [My response to you is:] ‘Have I been a desert for Israel?’ (Jeremiah 2:31) Did I act like a desert toward you? Is it customary for a king of flesh and blood, when he leaves for the desert, does he [expect to] find the living easy there, like that which he had found in his palace? Does he find there [in the desert] food or drink? Yet, when you were slaves to Egypt and I brought you out from there, I had you lie down on couches… And I even raised up three redeemers for you to serve you, as stated (in Micah 6:4), ‘and I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.’” …
Rabbi Berekhiah Hakohen said in the name of Rabbi Levi, “[A parable about] a king of flesh and blood who has a province. So, he sends competent leaders to conduct their affairs and to administer their justice. Who has the responsibility to pay them? Isn’t that the responsibility of the people of the province? The Holy One, blessed be He, did not act like that. Instead, he sent out Moses, Aaron, [and Miriam] … [And if was they], through their merit, who provided for Israel. The manna was through the merit of Moses… The clouds of glory [came] through the merit of Aaron… And the well [came] through the merit of Miriam… After that, I (God) brought them quail. (Numbers 11:31). [Again, God asked them:] “Have I been a desert for Israel?” (Jeremiah 2:31) Have I treated you like a desert? “Or a land of utter darkness?” (Ibid.) Did not I become a light for you, a light by My own glory? It is so stated: “And the Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to give them light…” (Exodus 13:21) …
Similarly, when the Holy One, blessed be He, came to the sea, it fled from Him, as stated: “The sea saw [Him] and fled.” (Psalms 114:3) He revealed Himself on Mount Sinai, [it also] fled, as stated: “The mountains danced like rams.” (Psalms 114:4) … When He came down into its midst, they began rejoicing, because the Holy One, blessed be He, was dwelling in their midst, as stated “The desert and the arid land shall be glad, and the wilderness shall rejoice and blossom like a crocus.” (Isaiah 35:1) (adapted and abridged from Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah 1:1, Hananel Mack ed. vol. 1, pp. 2-7)
This midrash’s vision of the desert wilderness was anything but a desert wilderness. God provided for all of the people’s needs; neither guidance nor provisions were lacking and even the wonders of the wilderness responded to God’s glory. All of this in the desert, where none of these things were an expectation. The people, in fact, had a hard time recognizing and appreciating all these miraculous blessings. This midrash wants us to try to set all of these difficulties aside and to be cognizant of the real good that allowed us to pull through the desert experience.
What are we to make of this retrospective? The desert experience represents life and life’s exigencies. It is very easy to get caught up in the despair and to forget about the guidance which sees us through our troubles. This midrash wants to remind us that even in the hardest of times there is light amidst the darkness, provided by God’s dwelling in our midst.