The fact that the Torah places two events in close proximity frequently leads to an illusory effect on the reader. For example, this week’s Torah portion of Hukat follows Parshat Korach, which was read last week, bolstering the distortion that the events that appear in Hukat happened immediately after those chronicled in Korach. In actuality, the narrative appearing in Hukat, which details the arrival of “the whole congregation to the desert of Tzin,” occurred 37 years after the events of Korach.
The opening five parshiyot in the Book of Numbers recount the first two years of the Jews’ sojourn in the desert. The narrative takes a sudden turn and deposits the reader 37 years later to the threshold of the Jews’ entry into the Land of Israel. What happened during those intervening years and why is the Torah silent about them?
The Torah’s reticence might be indicative of the icy relationship between God and the group that experienced the Egyptian redemption and Divine revelation at Sinai. Rashi points out that the expression “the whole congregation,” which appears in the parsha, refers to the new nation destined to enter the land of Israel after the previous generation perished in the desert. Since these added years are punishment for the colossal sin of the spies, the Torah omits mention of them.
Other biblical sources, however, provide a glimpse into the relationship between God and the people Israel during this period. Psalms presents God as declaring: “Forty years, I quarreled with a generation, and I said, ‘They are a people of erring hearts and they did not know My ways’” (95:10).
The mystery of the Torah’s omission of these 37 years is an indication of the nation’s continuous downward spiral away from the Divine. Even Moses had prophecy elude him during these years (Rashi on Deut. 2:17). Given that Moses merited prophecy solely in his capacity as leader of the Jewish nation, this is not surprising. When God is remote from His people, He has no need for Moses as His emissary to them or as a representative of the people. Thus did God also remain distant from His greatest prophet.
The Torah itself indicates that the experience of traveling in the desert was full of trials and afflictions:
“And you shall remember the entire way on which the Lord, your God, led you these 40 years in the desert, in order to afflict you to test you, And He afflicted you and let you go hungry, and then fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your forefathers know.” (Deut. 8:2)
Various commentators connect the suffering to the manna. The manna would spoil overnight and the desert sojourners did not have iron clad confidence that they would have food the following day, provided by God. The people’s reactions also suggest that, while the manna provided all the essential nutrients for human survival, they never felt fully satiated. Hunger and insecurity accompanied them for 37 years. They were wrong, however. Throughout the desert exile punishment and the people’s relative detachment from God, and He from them, He still miraculously provided them with adequate sustenance.
The biblical text goes on to describe how the clothing and the shoes worn in the desert did not disintegrate. The midrash further claims that the garments fit properly, even as the wearers grew; the clothing was simply laundered and pressed by the surrounding clouds, however that was manifest. (To the modern style-conscious reader, this might be the ultimate trauma: wearing the same garment for 37 years!)
Another difficulty the desert generation faced was the utter uncertainty of the itinerary. There was no advance notice as to whether the temporary stay would last days, weeks, months, or even years. The technical issues involved were frustrating and difficult. No one was sure whether to unpack and settle in or live out of their suitcases, as it were. Midrash Tanchuma identifies this uncertainty as part of the punishment, while Seforno maintains that people following God blindly without knowing where or for how long was praiseworthy, and that trust was the trait that made them worthy of redemption.
Rambam, in his seminal work of philosophy, The Guide of the Perplexed (III:24), explains that, in addition to the suffering of those bleak years, the people were given opportunities for growth, learning, development, and maturation. The difficulties they confronted and overcame in the desert prepared the nation to conquer and settle the land. It would have been impossible for the people to emerge from being a docile, ragtag band of slaves to become a large nation with military and national agendas had they not benefitted from the ripening provided by years of reflection, planning, and overcoming domestic and foreign challenges. The Israelites needed to evolve from a group of lowly slaves beholden to Egyptian taskmasters to become a free nation that would form an eternal and enduring covenant with God. It was in the silent barrenness of the desert that a nation is formed.
The Torah recounts how Moses ascended Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights, where he ate no bread and drank no water (Deut. 9:9). The prophet uses similar terminology to describe the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert (Deut. 29:5). Thus, one can understand that the nation’s desert experience mirrored Moses’ time on Sinai, in that just as his rapport with God was singular and unlike that with any mortal, the Israelites also developed a unique connection to God, unlike that of any other nation.
The unusual punishment of wandering in the desert, hungry, insecure, and traumatized is what ultimately forged the Israelites into a responsible, self-governing nation. The Torah thus teaches a great deal about the nation and its experience specifically by NOT mentioning the 37 years of distress in the desert.
Haim Nachman Bialik, in his poem “Meitei Midbar,” allegorically describes how the Israelites desert sojourn foreshadowed Jewish history. Both are, at once, difficult, dotted with trials and pain, and yet, God is ever-present, albeit silent with a promising end result.
“Also, the terrible wilderness, the empty desert
Shall echo his call: ‘Israel, Arise and possess!’”