"And HaShem spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after coming out of the land of Egypt..."
This upcoming Shabbat, in synagogues around the world the Jewish nation begins to read the book of Numbers, the fourth of the five books of Torah, written by the hand of Moshe rabbeinu - Moses our master. Called in English "Numbers" after the census which opens the book, it is known in Hebrew as Bemidbar - "in the desert." The book of Bemidbar shines a light on the thirty nine years in which the generation known as dor ha-dey'a - "the generation of knowledge" wandered bemidbar - "in the wilderness."
The generation that emerged from Egyptian bondage and sojourned in the desert for four decades has never failed to fascinate all who have read of their adventures throughout the more than three thousand years that have followed. The heights to which they rose were staggering, and the depths to which they fell when they did indeed stumble, were nearly cataclysmic. Reading of their trials and tribulations, safely in the comforts of our own homes and communities, we often find ourselves, as any Monday morning quarterback, clucking our tongues at their lapses of vision, faith and patience. But what were they really up against, and should we be so quick to judge them unfavorably?
The appellation dor ha-dey'a - "the generation of knowledge" which belongs only to the generation of the desert denotes both a very lofty spiritual existence, and a place of closeness to G-d. For this was the generation which G-d Himself lifted up out of the impurity of Egypt in which they were enslaved and drew near to Him, just fifty days later revealing to them Torah on Mount Sinai, establishing an everlasting covenant between the people of Israel and the G-d of Israel. But no less dramatic and no less challenging was the setting in which G-d chose to do all this: bemidbar - in the wilderness.
The vast vacant landscape of the wilderness at once reflects both the infinite endless nature of G-d Himself, and puts into sharp contrasting perspective the smallness and insignificance of man. In other words, having been redeemed from Egypt without being prepared spiritually, emotional, or physically for whatever their sudden liberation held in store for them, these former bondsmen found themselves in an environment that provided for them precious little in terms of physical survival or even social cohesion. Every move they were to make in the desert, either as individuals or as a society was necessarily a reflection of their utter dependence upon G-d. Even the encampment that they formed in the opening chapters of Bemidbar is one that revolves around G-d's presence in the Tabernacle, and whose borders are created by the people themselves. No rivers or mountains provide for them a natural border. No safe verdant valley misleads them into thinking that they can set down roots and make it on their own. Placed in an unremittingly harsh environment, yet being nourished each day by the manna, as if from the very table of G-d Himself, their very existence embodies immense contradictions. Being faced with implacable foes who seemingly emerge without warning out of the desert dust itself, while all the while living by the Torah that they were still receiving through Moses, we can only marvel in naked wonder at the spiritual stature of the generation. That they sometimes stumbled is not an indictment of their lack of vision or ingratitude but a testimony to their humanity.
Our sages also marveled at the seeming incongruities of greatness and smallness which distinguished this generation. Even the beloved Rabbi Akiva remarked that the generation of the desert would not enter into the world to come. Whether we understand this to be an admonition that they did not merit the world to come, or a paean to their righteousness and an acknowledgment that they were, for all intents and purposes, already on a spiritual level equivalent to that of the world to come, is a reflection of how we, the descendants of these remarkable people, see our roles in the continuing journey toward redemption.
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK to hear Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven discuss Sefer Bemidbar - Numbers - the Book of the Wilderness, the enigmatic generation of knowledge, the upcoming festival of Shavuoth, and what it takes to not just become familiar with Torah, but to make it our own.
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