Our Journey in the Wilderness

Shelah Lekha By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jun 4, 1994 / 5754 | Torah Commentary

The history of Israel in the wilderness is a textbook of religious wisdom. Perhaps the most basic principle it teaches is that miracles don’t create believers. We are inclined to think that given what the people had witnessed in Egypt and at the Reed Sea and before Mt. Sinai, they would have acquired an unmovable faith in God. And that is precisely what the Torah asserts after God rescued Israel at the Reed Sea, in a passage that we still recite daily in our morning prayers.

Thus the Lord saved the people Israel from the Egyptians on that day; they saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore of the sea. When the people witnessed the great power which the Lord wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they trusted in Him and in His servant Moses (Exodus 14:30–31).

But as the subsequent stories make so graphically clear, that trust and faith was as ephemeral as the morning dew. The repeated rebellions against God and Moses in the wilderness demonstrate that miracles could not steel the faith of Israel for the adversity to come. The exodus had freed Israel from bondage, but failed to transform its mental state of dependence and passivity. What is handed to us on a silver platter does little for the development of our character.

The Torah is profoundly aware of God’s dilemma. God seeks to win Israel’s irrevocable loyalty through a series of dramatic interventions only to discover the flabbiness of the faith that results. Thus, the very parasha in the book of Exodus which recounts the miracle at the Reed Sea and Moses’ song of exultation finishes with an account of three brief instances of national murmuring and rebellion. Deprivation quickly obliterates the memory of divine salvation and magnifies the comforts of slavery: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you (i.e. Moses and Aaron) have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death (Exodus 16:3).” Fashioned by miracles, Israel’s faith lasts only as long as its stomach is full.

The pattern of miracle and murmuring persists. Revelation at Sinai is soon followed by idolatry in the form of a golden calf. When he tarries atop the mountain, the people become anxious and dispirited, for their faith is as yet wholly child–like. Moses’ power over Israel lasts no longer than his presence. The people need a tangible emblem of God’s dwelling in their midst.

The book of Numbers adds still more brutal evidence of the short–lived effect of miracles on faith. In last week’s parasha we read of Israel’s revulsion at its restricted diet of manna. Again the glorification of slavery is strikingly meretricious. “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look at (Numbers 11:6).” How quickly, the rabbis commented, do our recent afflictions erase from memory those that preceded.In this week’s parasha God is finally driven to a major mid–course correction. Israel is discovered to be unready to endure the military combat it would take to conquer Canaan, the ultimate goal of the exodus. While miracles had managed to bring Israel this far, the conquest would have to be of their own doing. God would not simply empty the land of its many inhabitants and turn it over to Israel. Again the prospect of adversity dispels a faith unworked for. The spies sent by Moses to scout out the land acknowledge its bounty, but fixate on the physical prowess of its natives. Pathetically, they conclude their report with a sliver of self–revelation: “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them (Numbers 13:33).” And yet, how could Israel have anything but a self–image of Lilliputian proportions? It had still not done anything on its own. Self–confidence is, after all, a consequence of achievement. Like an overprotective parent, God had been too solicitous. A steady diet of miracles had crippled Israel’s capacity for independent action.

God’s decision, rendered in anger and disappointment, to be sure, is to let this generation of erstwhile slaves finish their lives in the wilderness. But, I submit, not because it takes time for slaves to become free men capable of intelligent self–conduct, but rather because God had inadvertently prolonged their state of nonage by doing everything for them. Neither faith nor maturity nor self–confidence can be bred in a relationship where one partner wholly dominates the other. God needed to step back, to give Israel some space to flounder in adversity and grow through hardship. A holy nation could not be created by divine fiat; it lacked the life–experience in which faith might be pondered, internalized and deepened.

The conquest could not be rushed. For a sense of responsibility, an appreciation of freedom, and an understanding of God’s will to ripen, Israel needed time. The wilderness provided a spartan setting without distractions to concentrate on the meaning of Torah. Setbacks and suffering were an indispensable part of the process. In the words of Maimonides: “It is known that but for their misery and weariness in the desert, they would not have been able to conquer the land and to fight…. For prosperity does away with courage, whereas a hard life and fatigue necessarily produce courage…” Raised sternly and simply, the next generation would command the inner resources to conquer the land and create a just society. By choosing to do less for Israel, God enabled it to become an active partner in the covenant.

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Sh’lakh L’kha are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.