After weeks of dwelling upon the ideal, the vision that Leviticus sets forth of the pure and holy community the Israelites were commanded to construct, B'midbar ("In the Wilderness"), the Book of Numbers, brings the Torah back to the real, nitty-gritty world of conflict, dissension, and turmoil. This consumes nearly thirty-nine of the Israelites' forty years of wandering in the Sinai on their circuitous journey to the Promised Land.
The first portion of Numbers, which shares the name of the book itself, takes up where Exodus left off, beginning with a census of men of military age and a description of tribal encampments and priestly clan assignments. In our parashah, all is neat and orderly. The Israelites are arranged symmetrically around the Tent of Meeting under the standards of their ancestral houses, troop by troop. The Levites' ancestral houses and clans are similarly, but separately, counted and arrayed, their duties designated, their places in the priestly hierarchy specified. Though reference is made to the sudden, traumatic deaths of Nadab and Abihu (Numbers 3:4), no hint is given here of dissatisfaction, dissension, or discord.
The tranquility of Parashat B'midbar stands in stark and eerie contrast to the tumultuous and troubled decades about to ensue. Like the dark background music that swells behind a movie scene of two young lovers, oblivious to the vortex into which they will soon be swept, the very orderliness of the portion hints ominously at what is about to unfold. We readers know what the immature Israelites do not-that they face almost four decades of death, disorder, and wandering in a chaotic, inhospitable midbar.
In the Book of Numbers, the people gripe constantly and whine bitterly about the harsh conditions of life in the desert, as if slavery were preferable. They complain that there is not enough water, that the (God-given) manna is tasteless, and that the land God has chosen for them, though incredibly rich and abundant, cannot be conquered because it is full of giants (13:32). Indeed, their frequent, peevish challenges to the authority of Moses and Aaron are often accompanied by the demand to return to Egypt. In the fullness of time, Korah and his followers foment a rebellion against the brothers and, in their exasperation with the people, even Moses's and Aaron's faith in God falters. The tragic denouement is yet to be revealed: The entire, disloyal generation of ingrates and malcontents is doomed to die in the wilderness. Not even Moses is spared; only Joshua and Caleb.
And yet, the decades of turmoil poised to unfold can be understood very differently. Why do the Jewish people's formative years take place "in the wilderness"? Like a child whose tantrum calls for a protracted "time out," or the adolescent who cannot make the transition to adulthood without a hard and lengthy struggle, the newly redeemed Israelites were unready for self-government. Their wilderness sojourn is a training program, forcing them to learn nation-building skills. They require a period of maturation and development to attain the essentials of communal existence: mutual interdependence, group loyalty, self-discipline, and self-reliance. The Rabbis tell us that the discomforts of desert living, calamitous mistakes, terrible setbacks, and awful failures were necessary preparation for the trials our people would have to endure to claim and retain our divinely ordained inheritance (see Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, vol. 3[New York: UAHC Press, 1993] p.10).
As the Tanach will yet instruct us, the Jewish people's collective education continues for centuries after our ancestors' entry into the Land of Israel. Indeed, it is ongoing. But the tribulations of the wilderness phase proved essential to surviving the losses and consolidating the victories that followed. In later generations, especially during periods of persecution and suffering, the recollection of that difficult epoch has inspired Jews to persevere, bolstering their confidence that they, too, could overcome severe hardships and painful defeats, and yet prevail. Rabbi Akiva went even further, suggesting that the wilderness ordeal "allowed them to merit receiving the priceless gift of the Torah" (Fields, ibid.). Some blessings are so precious they must be earned the hard way.
We read in the Talmud that "When one makes himself as the wilderness, which is free to all, the Torah is presented to him as a gift" (Babylonian Talmud, N'darim 55a). Like communities striving to forge a healthy, coherent identity, individuals, too, must pass through the wilderness to reach "the promised land." We, too, must struggle to overcome inner forces of darkness, conflict, and disorder. We, too, sometimes sulk and sink into whiny self-absorption, ingratitude, and self-pity. We, too, may fantasize that returning to an earlier, easier, idealized time and place, or grazing in greener pastures elsewhere, would relieve the tensions and pressures of adult obligations, the loneliness of human existence, and the stress of interpersonal relationships. No such luck. "Growing pains" come by their name honestly.
Rabbi Richard A. Block is senior rabbi of The Temple - Tifereth Israel in Cleveland, Ohio. He is president-elect of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the vice chair of the Reform Pension Board.