The End of the Desert
The Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying. Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names. From twenty years old and upwards, all who are fit to go out to the army in Israel, you shall count them by their legions you and Aaron. [Numbers 1:1-3]
The Israelites are in the Sinai Desert. It is the second year since their liberation from Egypt. They’ve seen the miracles at the Red Sea, received the Torah at Mount Sinai and built the Tabernacle.
Now, it’s time for another census. Not everybody will be counted. The subjects will be males ages 20 and over. Two explanations; One is by Shlomo Yitzhaki, the 11th Century sage. Rashi, whose words almost always reflect the Talmud, says G-d shows His love by counting His children. He does it after good times and after bad times.
Shmuel Ben Meir was Rashi’s grandson and known by the acronym Rashbam. Rashi had three daughters, and Shmuel was taught by his father and grandfather. The Rashbam would be one of the first of the Baalei Tosafot, the sages from France and Germany who explained the Talmud and often disputed the brief and simple commentary of Rashi.
The Rashbam, usually more spare than Rashi, elaborates on why G-d decided on a census, the second in about a year. He says the reason is based in who would be counted — those 20 and above and eligible to be drafted in the army. It would consist purely of Israelites. The tens of thousands of Egyptians who trailed Israel would not be included.
“Because now they would have to go to the Land of Israel,” the Rashbam writes, “and the 20-year-olds were suitable to go with the army to war.”
Time was now a factor. In 19 days, the Israelites would begin their journey to conquer Canaan and make it their home again. The army would be needed — even if it was just for show. What was clear was that their time in the desert would soon be over.
The battle for Canaan would be swift and easy. G-d would ensure that. Still, the adjustments for the Israelites would be considerable. In the desert, they had free food and drink. Their clothes were dry-cleaned; their sandals never torn. For others, the desert was hot and dusty.
After three days in the desert fun, I was looking at a river bed. And the story it told of a river that flowed. Made me sad to think it was dead. [Horse with no name. Dewey Bunnell. 1971]
For G-d’s people, the weather was perfect, the temperature neither too hot or cold. But in the Land of Israel, the Jewish people could no longer count on these miracles. For food, they would have to clear the rocks and till the land. They would have far less time for Torah and prayer but far more opportunities to fulfill G-d’s commandments. In the desert, everything was on cruise control. In Israel, the new settlers would make mistakes, some of them fateful.
Israel was the endgame. The desert paradise was meant to be a brief interlude. G-d would not remove His spirit from the people. But the Israelites would need to trust G-d and fulfill His word. To some, this was an unsettling thought.
The difference in approach between Rashi and Rashbam’s interpretation of the verses is that the former sees G-d as expressing His love and concern at every juncture. His census is similar to a farmer who walks through the field and takes an inventory of his crops and cattle.
The Rashbam’s approach is what we would call today interactive. The Israelites were given 19 days to get their act together and hit the road for Canaan. G-d took the census to give the military planners something to do. But the bottom line was that the sojourn in the desert would be over.
Actually, both approaches make sense today. The Iranian-sponsored enemy fired more than 1,500 missiles and rockets into Israel just a few days ago. In any other setting, there would have been many hundreds killed. Instead, there was one reported death.
One of the reporters asked an Islamic Jihad representative: Can’t you guys aim? The Jihad flack responded that his organization could aim very well. But the G-d of the Jews protected them and made sure none of the projectiles proved lethal.
Strange: The enemy recognizes the G-d of Israel and His love for His people. The Israeli leadership boasts of their military prowess and Iron Dome — while suing for a ceasefire.
The Israeli elite couldn’t wait to put this miniwar behind them and get back to the job of making money and provoke religious Jews. But there is an end to every status quo, and we are approaching this.
In the Tractate Gittin [17a], the Talmud tells the story of an ailing sage, Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah. He is visited by his students and asked about Jewish divorce. As he answers, a Persian enters and removes the lamp, plunging the room into darkness.
“Merciful One!” Rabbah cries. “Either take us into Your protective shadow or send us to the shadow of Esau’s children.”
The Talmud expresses puzzlement: Can it be that Esau, later Rome, was more mindful of Jews than the Persians?
The answer is that when the Persians are not in control, they can be quite tolerant to the Jews. But when they run the show — as they do today in Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen — they are harsh and deadly. The 1,500 missiles and rockets represent no more than an appetizer.
And this is G-d’s way of telling us — as he did in the desert some 3,500 years ago — that it is time to move. There is only one direction.