How Does A Nation of Wisdom Behave with Such Apparent Folly?
The fourth book of the Torah, Bemidbar, which we are about to conclude means “in the wilderness”. Perhaps it should be renamed In The Bewilderness. It is the most perplexing book of the Torah!
The generation of the midbar are called by our Sages dor de’a, a generation of wisdom. Indeed that is exactly how they appear in the opening chapters of the book.
Sefer Bemidbar takes up more or less from where or less Sefer Shemot left off (Vaykira being principally legislative). The mishkan has been erected and now the Bnei Yisrael are about to embark on their short trek through the desert from Mount Sinai to the border of Erets Yisrael where they are to be prepared for conquest and therefore are numbered and organised into army-like formations according to their tribes. Normally it would have taken them eleven days of marching (Deut 1:2) but miraculously they manage it in three. Then the trouble starts.
First they complain about the manna – the miraculous food from heaven which had the potential to taste like anything they craved bar a few vegetables that they had had in Egypt and for these they cry (Num. 11:5: Sifri 87). Then, on the cusp of the Promised Land, they petition Moses to send scouts to make sure it matches up to what G-D has already assured them (Num.13:2; Deut 1:22). Ten of the twelve return with a negative report and the panic-stricken people are on the point of appointing a new leader to take them back to Egypt (Num.14:4). When they sober up (14:39) it is too late. The die has been cast and they are sentenced to a 40-year stay in the desert (14:33). Realising the enormity of their loss, they defiantly try to ascend to conquer and are pounded into submission (14:44-45).
38 years later, a new generation is on the brink of entering the land. Not a grumble has been heard from them all that time. Now suddenly, incredibly, the old complaints re-surface. If only we had perished as our brethren perished before G-D Why have you brought G-D’s congregation to die in this desert? (20:3-4).
What did they mean? True enough, they had seen 15,000 people die each Tisha b’Av as they reached the age of sixty as per G-D’s word that none of the army-age men who had rejected the Land forty years earlier would enter (14:29-30; Taanit 30b;Rashi loc. cit.) But they were assured they would enter. Whence did these wild words spring?
Were we talking about a bunch of half-crazed savages, we would have no questions. But we don’t need our sages’ assurance to know that these men and women were filled with wisdom and desire to serve G-D. Instances abound, the greatest of them being their unanimous, unconditional acceptance of the Torah at Sinai – na’aseh ve-ne-nishma – even before it was given.
So what is going on?
Slave Mentality – Or Something More?
It is evident that that the 210-year sojourn in Egypt took its toll and left Bnei Yisrael with an inevitable slave-mentality which they struggled to shrug off. As the famous saying goes: it took a day to get the Jews out of Egypt but forty years to get Egypt out of the Jews!
But that cannot be the whole story. Yes, it makes sense that as they were about to commence the march to freedom they were resistant. Even after the miracle of the splitting of the Sea, they complained when they experienced lack. But after they came to Mount Sinai and received the Torah in unity, they stayed almost a year in the vicinity of the mountain and, with the sole and massive exception of the golden calf episode – when they thought Moses had died – they behaved as a dor de’a would be expected to behave. They donated for, and built, the mishkan with wisdom, dedication and stupendous enthusiasm. Only when they left Mount Sinai did the rebellions commence leading to the forty-year detention. Then at the end of the forty years, on the verge of entering the Land, internal defiant demons again beset them!. It appears that just when Bnei Yisrael are on the brink of something big, a huge challenge that they perceive as endangering them, they panic.
Can there be an underlying reason that would explain this?
The Generation Who Came Out of Egypt – A Remnant
I venture to suggest that the secret may lie in something the Torah does not even tell us but which we know only from a Midrash (Mechilta to Ex. 13:8) cited en passant and only partially by Rashi. Here is the Midrash in full.
They went up chamushim. This means only one in five came out of Egypt. Some say only one out of fifty. And some say one out of five hundred. R’ Nehorai says: By G-D’s holy work! I declare not even one out of five hundred came out … but very many Israelites died in Egypt. And when did they die? During the three days of darkness, when as it is said “they saw not one another” (Ex.10:23) so that the living could bury the dead thankful that their enemies could not see and rejoice at their downfall.
Even allowing for the hyperbole of Midrash, if we are to take this Mechilta at face value – and there is no reason not to, particularly as R’ Nehorai also reminds us that in Egypt “the children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly” (Ex 1:7) and the women would routinely produce sextuplets in a single birth so that the total number of Bnei Yisrael in Egypt could have exceeded 12 million – it would seem that a small fraction of the Bnei Yisrael actually left Egypt. The rest were assimilated into Egyptian culture.
This pattern has, of course, repeated itself throughout Jewish history. But at the dawn of our history, there was, it seems, a sudden wipe-out of the assimilated. By the Divine Hand, to be sure. But it beggars belief to think that the survivors would have remained unaffected. No doubt they would have been utterly traumatised.
And at that very juncture came their redemption! From now on, the Exodus would forever be inseparable in their minds from the tragic loss of myriad relatives and friends whom they had just buried. (Not by coincidence is Pesach irrevocably tied to Tisha b’Av in the Jewish calendar, both invariably occurring on the same day of the week!)
Only a Holocaust survivor today can really comprehend the enormity of this – the welter of mixed emotions of emerging alive from a hell, being saved, yet losing countless loved ones to that hell. In short: survivor syndrome.
Now we can perhaps understand better why at critical moments of stress, from day one onwards, they hark back to Egypt, the “old country”. Not only is it the source of their memories, it is also where their loved ones are buried. Maybe they even harbour the illusion that there are still family survivors there!
And the other cry, that they themselves would rather have died in Egypt or live out their days in the desert rather than die “in the Land, by the sword” (Num 14:3), is also understandable. They associate new beginnings with death! As they were about to come out of Egypt, four-fifths (or however many) perished. Now as they are about to come into the Land, they half-wonder: will the same thing happen? It is not a thought stemming from the intellect but a purely emotive fear. The dread of having to live with death again makes them voice the irrational wish that they had died already!
Now, in the fortieth year, yes, a new generation has emerged. But sadly, there is second-generation survivor syndrome too! No doubt the parents had told the children yet unborn at the Exodus of the tragic losses in Egypt that preceded their miraculous exodus, the memories of which they have had to endure.
A Generation of Wisdom After All!
But thankfully that was not all that the Exodus generation bequeathed to their children. For 37 blissful years they journeyed and encamped in the midbar at the word of G-D (Num 9:15-23). There they imbibed, learned, repeated and inculcated to their children the Torah they learned from Moses and the elders throughout those 37 years, without complaint or murmur. This is the unsung narrative highlight of Sefer Bemidbar. Indeed, this is the hidden meaning of bemidbar, From a root dabeir, “to speak words”.
In this way the dor de’a, the generation-of-wisdom rebuilt the next generation.
And in the closing chapters of Sefer Bemidbar, the Bnei Yisrael overcome all their demons and show their true selves. They valiantly fight the war with Midian. They kasher and tovel (purify) all the metal utensils newly acquired from the Midianites. They tithe them as Moses commands. The commanders bring a generous gift for the mishkan (sanctuary). The tribes of Reuven and Gad, while desiring to settle east of the Jordan, promise to play their full part in the conquest of the Land. The heads of the Gil’ad branch of the tribe of Manasseh clarify with Moses a halacha to do with inheritance. And the sefer concludes on a note of unity, hope and anticipation as the bnei Yisrael prepare to listen rapt to Moses’ farewell address before advancing with confidence and faith to their Promised Land.\
To be a life-affirming, faith-affirming Jew in the face of adversity has never been easy. Our remarkable ancestors, the dor ha-midbar, ultimately showed us the way!