The Wilderness Years

The 40 years in the desert was both harsh and necessary for the Jewish people to become who they would be

The Torah is not intended as a history book. Its narrative is never restricted to dry facts alone, but comes to reveal the human factors and the psychological/spiritual import of events. It is a book designed to address humanity’s achievements and foibles, grandeur and pettiness, and great capacity to do good and be evil.

The fourth book of the Torah, The Book of Numbers, is devoted to the narrative of the experiences of the Jewish people during their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness of Sinai. It is full of character sketches and descriptions of people who by their actions changed the course of Jewish history, not only in the desert of Sinai but for all times as well.

It is striking that many of the great men named at the beginning of Numbers are no longer there at the end of the book. Positions of power take their toll on their holders.

The desert was a harsh learning place for the Jewish people. However, its lessons were absorbed and translated into Jewish individual and public life, and thus have proven to be of eternal value.

Reality Sets In

Victories and triumphs inevitably are followed by letdowns, frustrations and disappointments. The exultation of Israel at seeing its hated oppressors destroyed at its feet knew no bounds. Its wildest dreams of success and achievement had been fulfilled and realized. However, almost immediately, the people of Israel, faced with the problems of the real world, turned sullen and rebellious.

Food, water and shelter were all lacking. Even when God performed miracles to take care of those needs their mood of foreboding and pessimism was not easily dispelled.

And this mood was heightened by the sudden unprovoked attack of Amalek (Exodus 17:8). Amalek was defeated by Joshua and Moses, but the mere fact that such an attack occurred so soon after the events of the exodus had a disheartening effect upon the people.

The Spies

With the most positive of intentions, Moses commissioned twelve leaders to spy out the land God had promised (Numbers 13:1-16). He undoubtedly had unquestioned trust in their piety and wisdom, and expected them to return with an enthusiastic assessment of the Land of Israel.

Instead they returned with a report about the land and its inhabitants whose negative parts overwhelmed the positive statements they uttered (Numbers 13:27-29). They eventually backed up their report with personal agendas, woeful predictions and demagogic pronouncements. And Moses was powerless to tell the people to reject the negative report.

A mood of wild depression overwhelmed Israel and God informed them that they would not enter the Promised Land. That honor and opportunity would be given to the next generation. It is the children of the generation that left Egypt who will take on the task of nation-building. They had never been slaves; had never known the taskmaster’s whip.

The question arises why Moses, who was able to convince Israel to leave Egypt, march through the desert, accept the yoke of the Torah, reject the Golden Calf, build the Tabernacle, etc. was unable to convince his generation about the importance of the Land of Israel.

The harsh truth is that most Jews find it easier and more comfortable to live under foreign rule than to have to build their own self-governing society and nation. The exile mentality of the Jewish people, formed already in Egyptian bondage over three millennia ago, remains part of Jewish DNA even today.

The Rebellion of Korah

Like one domino falling after another, rebellion broke out in the camp directly following the failure of the spies. Korah — a leader of the tribe of Levi, one of the bearers of the Holy Ark, the wealthiest man in Israel, and a close relative of Moses and Aaron — aroused others to mutiny and appoint him leader.

Although Korah couched his motivation in idealistic-ideological terms — that all of the people are holy and worthy and Moses had no right to rule over them in a single-handed fashion (Numbers 16:3) – his real motivation was personal vendetta against those who had failed to appoint him to the high office he thought he deserved. Nevertheless, his populist slogan resonated amongst the Jews and hundreds of leading kinsmen joined him in his complaint against Moses’ rule.

Moses, the most humble of all humans, reacted in an uncharacteristically harsh manner. The true reason for that is because Korah wished to convert Judaism to a man-made “democratic” faith, not its original and true source as a faith revealed to humans from on high, a faith and life system ordained in Heaven and revealed to humans. Therefore, it was not merely Moses and his leadership that were the core issues in this dispute, but the very definition of Judaism: Is it revealed and Godly or man-made and invented?

On that basic core issue of Judaism, Moses saw no room for compromise or tolerance. It was not Moses’ status that was at stake here. It was the understanding and true meaning of Judaism. Its very future was at risk.

The end result of the rebellion was that the Earth miraculously opened and swallowed up Korah and his followers, dragging them down into bottomless pit of no return (as, historically, has been the fate of man-made “Judaisms” over the centuries). The lesson was learned and Moses’ leadership was never questioned again.

Balak and Balaam – Two Types of Jew-Haters

Another major incident in the desert was the attempt of a Moabite king Balak to hire a non-Jewish prophet, Balaam, to curse the Jewish people (Numbers 22-24). Balak is brutal, direct and minces no words. The existence of the Jewish people itself is somehow seen as a lethal threat to him and Moab. Balaam, on the other hand, is suave, cunning, full of sweet words and blessings, but no less inimical to the existence of the Jewish people.

Whereas Balak seems to be safely ignored by heaven, not so Balaam. Apparently there is no human force possessed by the Jewish people that can safely counteract Balaam’s venom. He is a prophet, soothsayer and “holy” man, possessed of great charisma and intelligence. But behind that veneer of sincerity and good intentions lays the real villain of the story – the greedy, frustrated, amoral Jew-hater.

In the end, God turns Balaam’s curses into blessings. Without God’s interference, so to speak, Balaam’s true wishes could have been fulfilled.

Both Balak and Balaam are recurring characters in the Jewish story throughout the ages and present in our current world. Balak threatens physical extermination, openly stating his aims and threats. Balaam organizes boycotts, and speaks in the name of skewed justice and human rights.

The Torah nowhere describes the demise of Balak; it only deals with the death of Balaam. For the end of Balaam is in fact the end of Balak as well. Balak is the hateful enemy, the bully and seeming aggressor. However, it is Balaam who carries the key to the ultimate resolution of the situation. With his defeat and elimination, the situation can return to a manageable normalcy.

Travelers of Time and Space

The Book of Numbers concludes detailing all the places the Jews stayed from the time they left Egypt to the end of their 40 years in the desert.

Jews are inveterate travelers. In their long exile there is almost no place in the world they have not visited, settled and eventually moved from. Thus, the recording of all of the travels and way stations that the Jews experienced in their years in the Sinai desert is a small prophecy as to the future historical experiences of Jews over millennia of wandering.

The paradigm of Jewish history in exile is that Jews arrive at a new destination, settle, help develop that country, begin to feel at home and attempt to assimilate into the majority culture and society. Suddenly, everything collapses. A mighty and unforeseen wind uproots them after centuries of living there and they move on to new shores.

There are no more Jews in numbers sufficient to speak of in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, etc. This was the Jewish heartland for centuries. But now Jews have moved on again to other shores.

Every way station and desert oasis is recorded to serve as a reminder that the future of the Jewish people lies only in the Land of Israel.

Moses’ Last Words

The Book of Deuteronomy, which consists of the final lectures of Moses during his last month on Earth, is the most human of all of the five books of the Torah.

Moses’ final words to the Jewish people are words of love and blessing. He has already warned the people of his dark visions about their future and has advised them of the terrible costs that will be exacted from them in their long exile. Nevertheless, at the end his thoughts turn toward the future, to the greatness of the eternal people, its resilience and stubbornness and its tenacity.

Moses, who is the supreme realist, nevertheless emphasizes that blessings overcome curses and that eventually goodness triumphs over evil. The future is still within our grasp to improve and succeed.

Posted in:
Crash Course
Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor

One Response to “The Wilderness Years”

  1. Brian Harvey says:

    Very moving article as I am just re-reading the beginning of the Bible. I find the thoughts expressed here true and meaningful. The spiritual aspect expressed by Balaam vs. the phsical aspect expressed by Balak is a new thought for me. I find it true and a new revelation of Biblical truth.