The Israelites Are Made to Wander in the Desert For 40 Years
By Morty Breier
June 23, 1995
The Israelites, after being led across the desert by Hashem, come to the borders of the promised land. Their self-doubt leads Hashem to let Moses offer assurances by sending a spying committee, the son’s of the leaders of the 12 tribes, into the land. Upon returning after 40 days, 10 of the spies speak against Hashem’s promise of success, doubting that the land could be taken by the Israelites. 2 of them, Caleb and Joshua, joining with Moses, remain convinced that Hashem will provide the Israelites with victory over the inhabitants. By the next morning the Israelites, provoked by the 10 spies, filled with fear and doubt, and ignoring Moses, Caleb and Joshua, proclaimed their desire to return to Egypt. By Hashem’s count this was the tenth time the Israelites had lost faith in Him since they departed from Egypt. In his anger at their ready willingness to doubt Him, He tells Moses that He is ready to destroy them. Moses reminds God of His attributes of Mercy and Patience, of His promises to their forefathers and of His reputation as God of the Israelites. In response Hashem destroys only the 10 offending spies, while sentencing the Israelites to spend 40 years wandering in the wilderness before being entrusted with the promised land, thereby denying it to the offending generation. Hearing this decree the Israelites realize too late their lack of faith, and, without Hashem’s help, try unsuccessfully to enter the land.
Following this historical narrative, Hashem tells Moses to give the people a number of new laws regarding meal-offerings and libations for use when they will enter the promised land. The origin of Challah, which I hope we shall be tasting shortly, derives from this portion of the Torah. Non-Jews, living amongst the Israelites, referred to as proselytes, are required also to obey these new laws. The sin of idol worship, and by association, the willful avoidance of honoring any of Hashem’s dictates, including violations of the Sabbath, are dealt with harshly: stoning by the entire assembly. The use of Tzitzis, the one small example of Hashem’s commandments, is then explored as a daily, ever present means, using one’s garment, for directing one’s attentions toward higher aspirations. There is here a warning that started with the doubting spies, not to follow and be taken in by the lures that appeal to heart and eyes, but instead be ruled by intelligence and faith.
I’ve generally covered the skeleton of this weeks reading of the Torah. Many sages have added the flesh and bones by examining the words with which each phrase is written, by noting its place in the totality of the Torah, by interpreting it in the light of this totality, by looking at it as though each jot and tittle were written by God’s hand, by bringing to it their own sagacious qualities, by a desire to unify Israel under Hashem’s rule, by believing that all wisdom can be found in the words, phrases, paragraphs and chapters of the Torah, and by arguing that no human, changing, unfolding story-line can or should alter these truths as already passed on to us. In fact the Torah, quoting Hashem even admonishes us not to trust in the foibles of humanity but only in God’s immutable laws as defined in His Book.
Now I believe that humanity’s story-line continues to write Hashem’s book. I believe that our history, and by our, I mean humanity’s, is the flowering top of the biological tree whose roots tap back into the formation of earth, earth which is part of this solar system, part of this universe whose length, breadth and age testifies to the true dimensions of Hashem. Not 5 or 10 thousand years, not heaven and God up there and earth and us down here. Not a portion of the planetary land surface called the middle- east, nor a series of journeys, decisions, actions, conflicts and conversations had during the biblical period covered by this book we study. And His dimensions are surely not, in my way of thinking, limited to the minute examination of his relationship with a middle-eastern tribe of Israelites, as enlightened and spiritually advanced as their sages might have been.
I believe that we, this planet, life, humanity, are writing God’s Torah. I would like to think that we Jews are given a special task in this journey, that our tradition prepares us as special contributors, that we meet on Shabbos morning to reaffirm our specialness, but also that other traditions meet on other days to reaffirm their specialness, and that with each of our traditions, cultures, sages, practices and beliefs we together weave the tapestry of this planet unfolding story line and write the chapters of this universe’s ongoing Torah. I believe that I am and you are the living letters of this holy document, and that we, as living letters are much more self-evidently miraculous and God-imbued than the Hebrew letters that were used to write the 5 Books of Moses, the Mishnah and the Gemmorah.
Look, if we believe in Hashem, in God, in a universal and compassionate intelligence, in a perfectly intentioned creative power, in a lawful orderliness to existence, in a purpose and reason for it all, we must believe that Hashem’s plan is unfolding in time. What this means is that the universe starts out fragmented, broken, unconscious and chaotic, the story of our universe starting when God’s vessel was shattered, with the express purpose, the holy work, of coming together in order to grow toward an end point of all-encompassing wholeness, perfect health, super-consciousness and exquisite order. In fact our tradition of the Messianic coming is precisely such an endpoint vision. But if we are the latest chapter in this historic, better yet, in this cosmic story then we are more together, more whole, healthier, of higher consciousness with a better ordered understanding of the universe than we’ve ever had.
At the time Moses pressed at the gates of the promised land with his multitude of Israelites just recently freed from years of slavery, humanity’s story-line was heavily concerned with rising above the biological claims for survival. The drama was one of animal fear, territory, dominance and aggression verses the more spiritual call of common destiny, lawfulness, contemplation and unity. The world seemed much more chaotic. Reasoned laws governing how inanimate matter interacted were unknown.
Tribal ties were the first line of defense. Seeing the world beyond the adjacent tribal enclaves, many of them speaking their own languages, was not possible. Movement took place in four very limited directions with few guideposts and no maps. Up and down were reserved for visions of heaven and earth. God worked wonders from above, man was tempted back to his animal nature from below. The drama was set on a fixed stage, that it seamed would never change.
It was easier to slip back into barbarism, to cower in fear at these unknowable physical forces, or at descriptions of grasshoppers warring with giants as one of the spies felt would happen if the Israelites invaded Canaan. It was easier to stone neighbors who had broken a law that might incur the wrath of He who controls such forces. It was easier to be able, at each of the ten signs of possible adversity, to give up on the dream of freedom and nationhood promised by the sages speaking in the name of God, and wish to return to slavery because of the insecurities of survival in the raw world of those times.
But now we, you and I, those around us, our neighbors and friends, live in a much larger more ordered world. We live easily under both the laws of science and the laws of our society because they are more reasonable, better understood. We have fashioned for ourselves an environment remote from the rawness of biological survival. We interact globally on many fronts: information, technology, science, economics, politics, tourism, immigration, language translations, books, films, cultural exchanges, spiritual paths, wisdoms and teachings.
We live in a world of our own making, not as fantasy but as real power and accomplishment. Only 8% of America’s work force is engaged in producing food as opposed to 98% in countries comparable to ancient tribes of the middle east. We spend our time reading and writing books, newspapers, documents, reports, or watching and making images and figures move across the glass face of a cathode ray tube. We immediately learn of events taking place halfway around the world and events here are seen and heard by people half way around the world. We speak through an unimaginable system of wires, switches and satellite transmissions to remote loved ones, to business associates, to long-time friends, to my son driving a car through the Australian night. We discuss the politics of planetary ecology, of world banks, of UN peace keepers, of the rise and fall of interest rates, foreign exchange and trade imbalances. We live on a blue white sphere seen from space through cameras powered aloft by rockets that harness more fire than the ancients ever dreamed of. Our telescopic eyes atop Mauna Kea tell us that we are part of a solar system held in orbit by our magnificent sun, one of many billions. We practice the holiness of informational based connections and common concerns, the holiness of intelligence harnessed to faith in the advent of a better, less oppressive future, in a universal holy dream of the world attaining, what could only be called, Messianic Consciousness.
Our personal spiritual battles are not so much to rise out of our instinctive animal nature, as to re-possess it, in the midst of our ordered life, now that we need not use it for fight or flight, for survival purposes. We are trying to come to terms with our loss of tribal connection in order to gain planetary connections, by recognizing the universal humanness in us all. We are in the process of coming together not of proclaiming our exclusiveness. As Rabbi Zalman wrote, now is the time of “and” not “or”, it is not either you’re with me or against me, it is not either my country or the barbarians, it is not either my religion or the infidels, it is not either Jews, the chosen people or Goyim, the leftovers. It is all these together, my people and yours, my country and yours, my religion and yours, Jews and Catholics and Protestants and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and Shamans. It is Israelites and Canaanites and Malekites and Egyptians and Palestinians. It is, hopefully soon, Serbs and Bosnians and Croates. It is, as we have seen, capitalism with a socialist heart, big or small as it might be. It is the dream of blacks and whites and reds and yellows working and living side by side.
One of the takes on this part of the Torah has it that the Israelites were too used to the spiritual life of being guided and provided by Hashem as they crossed the desert. That living without a home, “on the road”, we used call it, was too ungrounded, lead to too much disconnected highness and not enough grounded action. The interpretation is that the Israelites, especially the princely and devout tribal leaders, selected as the spies, really didn’t want to trade in the monkish high they had just experienced in sojourning through the desert wilderness under Hashem’s guidance and protection, for the earthly chores, repetitive activities, and heavy responsibilities of building an agricultural based nation. We all have faced this choice when each of us moved from the adventurous potential of youth, the high of anything is possible, the freedom of being on the road, to the mature responsibility of home, family and career. So these spies and the rest of the people defied Hashem, believing, perhaps, that they were rejecting a less holy, more earthly existence in favor of one in which they could continue to more fervently devote themselves to Him. As the saying goes “The fates lead he who will, he who wont, they drag”. They misread what Hashem wants of us. Hashem, according to this view, requires that we practice our faith in and through our worldly activity, and not by our separating ourselves from it. The poor spies paid dearly for their shortsightedness.
It was shortsightedness that was their undoing. Shortsightedness for placing savoring their recent past above contributing to the future, shortsightedness for putting the personal bliss produced by their piety above the hard work of contributing to the building of a homeland and a nation. We come full circle. Here is the interpretation that says Hashem values more contributions made to the ongoing story-line of creation, than to the moments of highness that opting out of that story line creates. In other words, the work of getting here, America in the 21st century AD, from there, Canaan in the 5th century BCE, is more God’s work than declaring the highness of opting for a devoutly detached monkish existence.
One might say that being a forward looking Engineer, or ecologist, is of higher value to Hashem’s purposes, the ongoing writing of this planetary Torah, than being a backward looking religious devotee.