The fourth book attributed to Moses is traditionally called B'midbar (not Ba-midbar), "in the wilderness," in Hebrew. The English title, Numbers, comes originally from the Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint (third century b.c.e.), which named it Arithmoi. The Latin Vulgate took that name and called it Numeri. The old Rabbinic name for the book is chomesh hap'kudim, "one-fifth [of the Pentateuch] dealing with numbers," because of the various lists and censuses recorded in it. Rashi's calls it Vay'dabeir, "and he said," after the very first word of the book (Rashi on Exodus 38:26).
In thirty-six chapters, Numbers covers the forty-year period the Israelites spent in the wilderness of Sinai between the Exodus from Egypt and the entrance to the Holy Land, though most of the material deals with the earliest and the latest years of the journey.
In the Bible as well as in the ancient Near East, certain numbers, such as three, seven, and ten, play significant roles. Forty is also one of those important numbers. Examples are plentiful: in the Flood, the rain fell for "forty days and forty nights" (Genesis 7:4); both Isaac and Esau were forty when they got married (Genesis 25:20, 26:34); it took forty days to embalm Joseph (Genesis 50:3); Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28); the Israelites were made to wander in the wilderness for forty years (Numbers 32:13); and so on. It appears that in the Bible forty "is used as a round number to designate a fairly long period of time in terms of human experience or endurance" (Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 3, p. 565) and, therefore, should not be taken literally.
Why were the Israelites compelled to wander in the midbar, "the wilderness" (not a "desert" like the Sahara, because there was enough vegetation in Sinai to sustain them), for such a long period? There are some hints in the biblical texts and various explanations in Rabbinic literature. According to the Bible, the Israelites complained about the hardship of the wilderness life and wanted to go back to the false security in Egypt, forgetting that they were slaves to Pharaoh (Numbers 14:1-4). They also remembered the good food they had back in Egypt: "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 to!" (Numbers 11:5-6). Therefore, the wilderness generation, with a few exceptions, was doomed by God, who was angry at their lack of gratitude (Numbers 14:35).
For some rabbis, the forty-year wandering was imposed upon the Israelites to force them to study Torah, for otherwise, "each would take possession of a field or a vineyard and regard himself as not obligated to study Torah." Furthermore, the wandering allowed the Canaanites time to rebuild the country they had destroyed in anticipation of the arrival of the Israelites, for God had promised the Israelites that they would inherit a good land ( Tanchuma, B'shalach 1).
The Message of B'midbar Today
Many contemporary rabbis have pondered the forty-year migration in the wilderness and derived various lessons. One of my favorites is this from Pinchas H. Peli: "The Book Bamidbar teaches us that there are no short-cuts to the Promise Land, and no instant transformation from bands of liberated slaves into responsible, self-governing nation; no generation of redemption (dor geulah) without a generation dying out in the desert ( dor ha-midbar) preceding it." (Torah Today,[Washington DC: B'nai B'rith Books, 1987], p. 157).
Furthering Peli's thought, the forty-year wandering, for me, represents a challenge to every individual who undertakes something new. One needs to take a chance in order to embark on a novel adventure. Progress often depends on taking the first step into the unknown. Surely, this risk should be a calculated one, based on knowledge after all the pros and cons are measured, and not a foolish, uninformed step forward. But one thing is clear: If we take no chances in life, very little is accomplished. Almost everything we do necessitates confronting the future with courage and self-confidence. Choosing a profession or a line of work, starting a new business, getting married, moving to a new house or to another location, and other such benchmarks all require taking risks. The alternative is to go back to the security of early family life-if indeed that security exists-and remain like a child. For the Israelites, the wilderness wandering was a training period to learn how to become free and self-reliant. Those who have a slave mentality are not ready to confront the challenges of freedom and novelties of life.
As parents and teachers, our job is to give our children and students the best tools, skills, and moral values available and then launch them into the uncertainties of life. We can only hope for the best. Ultimately they need to live their own lives according to the circumstances presented to them.
It is in this spirit that the Rabbis required that every parent teach his or her son, among other things, how to swim (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 29a). Similarly, in medieval times, Maimonides taught that, of the eight levels of charity, the highest one is to give the individual all the means necessary to become self-sufficient (Mishneh Torah, Z'raim 7:1).
There is a beautiful Rabbinic midrash that states that when the Israelites arrived at the shore of the Reed Sea and saw that the Egyptians were closing in, Moses started to pray hard, until God told him, "My children are in great distress, the sea is enclosing them, the enemy is in pursuit, and you stand here praying away! Speak to the Children of Israel that they should go forward" (Sh'mot Rabbah 21:8). In another passage, the Rabbis argued, "The sea did not split for them until they stepped into it, indeed until the waters reached up to their very noses" (Sh'mot Rabbah 21:10). The lesson is an old one that is not always heeded: God helps those who help themselves!
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino , Ph.D., is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, Massachusetts.