David Curwin
Author of "Kohelet - A Map to Eden"

We cannot stay in the desert

Even if they didn’t read the book, everyone knows the story. The Jews were oppressed in Egypt for generations, and God rescued them from Egypt, delivering them to freedom. But if you only watched the movies, you’d be missing the difficult part. The story doesn’t end with the Jews entering the Promised Land. They go to the desert, where they try and test God and Moses, with seemingly unending complaints and rebellions. The pinnacle of these episodes is the story of the spies. Here, the Jews reject the opportunity to enter the Land of Israel, and actually prefer to return to Egypt. According to the rabbis, the night of their cries was Tisha B’Av, and God declared, if you cried for nothing tonight – you will cry for generations. And so our fast of Tisha B’Av this week actually returns to that critical event.

But why did they reject the Land of Israel, even preferring returning to slavery in Egypt? Wasn’t it clear to them that the redemption would only be complete once they entered the land? There were additional commandments in the land – but we don’t see that the Jews rebelled when instructed with the other commandments they received in the desert. Rather, they did not want to make the change from a simple life, without major dilemmas to a complicated life where there weren’t always easy answers and simple solutions. When they were slaves, as bad as life was, their masters made the decisions for them. In the desert, God provided for all of their needs. But when they would enter the land, they would need to fight wars, kill and be killed, and perhaps most scary of all – be responsible for their own choices, and carry the burden of inevitable mistakes.

Perhaps all of this wasn’t necessary! Couldn’t they have taken God’s message to Egypt and Mesopotamia and from there to the rest of the world? Why did they need their own land? But that was not God’s plan. God’s promise to Abraham was that He would make him into a great nation, and as a nation he would influence the other nations of the world. The nation of Israel would be charged with the mission, not individuals. The nation would act justly, and therefore show other nations that they could do the same.

The Jews could not stay in the desert. There were really only two choices – take up God’s mission in the Land of Israel with all of its challenges, or return to Egypt as slaves. The generation that made the second choice were punished and died. Only those who were willing to take on the responsibility entered the land.

While these stories may have seemed like sterile examples of ancient literature for millennia, in the past century they have been brought back to life. For generations, the Jews were persecuted in the lands of their exile. The Zionist movement created a new opportunity for them, culminating in the founding of the State of Israel. But suddenly, we became responsible for our own decisions. While the history of nations is full of mistakes and tragedies – we were always passive observers. Now the errors, as well as the successes, would be our own. This was anything but a simple transition.

While the war in Gaza has had massive support in Israel, in significant segments outside of the country there is a different picture. The ambivalence, if not outright opposition, to Israel’s actions is particularly noticeable with younger, less affiliated Jews. The same approach can be found in such celebrities as Jon Stewart (although it is not clear just how much he reflects the views of his audience and how much he directs them). What bothers them? Many of them do support Israel. They believe there should be a State, and enjoy Exodus by Leon Uris as much as the Exodus they read about on Passover. But their image of how Israel should act is based on a romanticized version of what should be. They focus exclusively on the final result, ignoring the complexities of the process. Our vision is one of peace. But in order to defend itself, a country must at times go to war. And in war, civilians, including children, are killed. This has been going on for time immemorial. War is bad, and certainly civilian deaths are bad. How should this be resolved?

It is sometimes surreal to see how intelligent individuals ignore the Arab atrocities to both Jews and the other Arabs (perhaps this is where the real racism toward Arabs is found). They don’t consider the acts of Russia or China, or even the Western nations when they choose who to boycott. The only country that gets them upset is Israel. Why? Because Israel should be held to a higher standard. Is that fair? Perhaps – we’ve been setting the moral bar higher for millennia.

The vision of nations no longer using war to resolve disputes was introduced in our own Bible! We pray for peace three times a day! But when we chose to leave the ghettos and the shtetls, we entered the real world. We stepped out of the audience and onto the stage. We took the bold step of returning to history, with all of the risks of errors and tragedy. We did this, in order to have our own state, to forge our own destiny, hopefully resulting in that peace we all dreamed about and prayed for. The State of Israel has made incredible progress in its short history. We’ve turned desert into an oasis, absorbed millions of immigrants and made tremendous contribution in science and the arts.

However, in the meantime, we must make the same sacrifices that the generations of the spies tried to avoid. We send our sons to war, and pray that the knock on our door doesn’t bear the worst news of all. We reluctantly go to war, and when we do, we do our best to protect our own soldiers and civilians on the other side as well. But in war, people die. The only alternative is to return to Egypt. We cannot stay in the desert.

Yet it is not sufficient to discuss how our values must be those of the Land of Israel and not the Land of Egypt. If we really believe in those values, if we really want to fulfill those goals, we must translate those values into actions and choose to live here. More than demonstrations of solidarity and unity from Jewish communities around the world (which we certainly appreciate), we need the Jewish people here, in our land, in order to complete our mission. It really warms the heart to see the signs across the world saying “I stand with Israel.” But the next step is “I stand in Israel.” No visit of support encouraged me as much as the flight that brought hundreds of new immigrants. While we all hope that peace will come soon, those that came (and those that stay) showed that they are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to fulfill the promise to Abraham. We need the rest of you. And that is what will finally turn Tisha B’Av into a day of joy.

About the Author
David Curwin is an independent scholar, who has researched and published widely on Bible, Jewish thought and philosophy, and Hebrew language. His first book, “Kohelet – A Map to Eden” was published by Koren/Maggid in 2023. Other writings, both academic and popular, have appeared in Lehrhaus, Tradition, Hakirah, and Jewish Bible Quarterly. He blogs about Hebrew language topics at A technical writer in the software industry, David resides in Efrat with his wife and family.