June 10th: Bemidbar and Shavuot
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
Though the Book of Numbers begins with a census of the Israelites (hence its Greek and English name), the bulk of the book tells stories about our forty years of wandering in the desert. As such, Bemid’bar is a book about our relationship with God, a relationship that turns out to be much like those between people—with both high and low points.
The event which we celebrate on Shavuot (this coming Sunday) is clearly a high point: after our multi-miraculous freedom from Egyptian bondage, we are brought to Mount Sinai and into a covenant with God. This bond is the purpose of our freedom, and the Ten Commandments and the Torah are handbooks for this continuing relationship. As God explains it:
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19.4-6)
One of the metaphors used throughout the Holy Scriptures speaks of God and Israel being married, and our various episodes reflect the joys and challenges of marital life. A prime example is the traditional Haftarah for this week, Hosea 2.1-22. Hosea is married to Gomer, a woman who loves him but who also continues to ply her trade as a prostitute. Hosea loves her despite her infidelity, just as God continues to love us despite our immorality and spiritual infidelity, and the Haftarah speaks to the angst that both Hosea and God feel.
In this metaphorical construction, Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah) is seen as the wedding between God and us. One could then see the stories in the Book of Numbers as accounts of the challenges of living together—episodes in which loving partners can be pushed to their limits. Just as relationships between humans need work, our relationship with God requires continual attention. There is much work to do as we learn and adjust and seek to treat each other respectfully, fairly, and with sensitivity. An early crisis in our honeymoon is God’s decision to make us spend forty years wandering in the desert, and I would like to share with you three traditional explanations for this decision. Each, in its own way, speaks to the dynamic of living in relationship with the Divine.
One explanation comes directly from the text in Parshat Shelach Lecha (which we’ll read in a few weeks). God’s plan is for Israel to go immediately into the Land of Israel, but, of the twelve spies sent ahead to reconnoiter, ten come back with a fearful and pessimistic report, and the people fall into despair and reject God’s commission. God regards this as a lack of faith and a kind of disqualification. This generation does not deserve the Land, and God sentences it to wander in the desert until everyone is dead. Perhaps their children will be faithful enough to inherit the Land. Some commentators, however, wonder whether this is an outright punishment or simply God’s realization that the former slaves are not adept enough psychologically or spiritually to take the Land. The slave mentality handicaps aspirations, and God’s promise to give the Land to Abraham’s family has to wait for a while.
A second explanation approaches the issue of the Canaanites and the various tribes already living in the Land of Israel. There is an awareness of their “ownership,” but the Bible’s point of view is that the real Owner of Canaan and everywhere else is God. As a result, the Torah, the Prophets, and the Rabbis all approach this question asking about God’s allocation/assignment of various territories. A key to this line of thought comes from some verses that speak of the sins of the Canaanites “not being complete”—as though God’s tenants are allowed a certain amount of misbehavior before they are evicted. These passages lead to the Prophets’ belief that God’s gift of the Land of Canaan is conditional—and dependent on morality and religiosity. Yes, the Land is promised to us, but it is also promised to the Canaanites, and their sinning gets them dispossessed. Therefore, what’s true for the Canaanites is true for us: if we don’t follow God’s commands and behave ourselves, we could lose the Land, too. In fact, a frequent theme of the Prophets is that the conquest and exile of the Israelites and the Judeans are actually punishments by God for their immoral and irreligious lives. The great empires of Assyria and Babylonia are not challenges to God, but merely chastening rods with which God punishes us for our sins. In other words, the forty years in the wilderness can be seen as a delay God puts into the Divine justice system. Will the Canaanites behave properly, or will they use up their “last chances?”
(What happens if they repent? According to the logic of the Book of Jonah, they would be allowed to stay in the Land—and live side by side in peace with the Israelites.)
A third reason for the forty year delay takes a very different tack. Instead of seeing the delay as a punishment or a waiting period, this approach speaks of the time in the wilderness as a kind of intense spiritual retreat. Freed from the burdens of farming, making a living, and even cooking, the Israelites are free to study Torah all day. They learn it from Moses himself—just after he hears it from HaKadosh Baruch Hu! In this environment of pure holiness, they explore and experience the full range of spirituality and Torah consciousness, and their intensity has been passed down through the generations. Our own spiritual sensibilities, thus, come from a very deep cultural and psychic place. The forty years of spiritual nurturing and development prepare our people for lives of holiness. Likewise, our own times of prayer, study, and spiritual reflection can help us to prepare for our roles in tikkun olam, the ultimate repair and perfection of the world. Remember what Simon the Righteous used to say, “Upon three things does the world stand: on Torah, or Worship, and on Deeds of Lovingkindness.” (Avot 1.2) What begins with Torah and worship continues in tikkun olam.