Tammuz 22, 5781/July 2, 2021
Forty years of wandering through a vast wilderness are coming to a close. The children of Israel, born in the desert, born into freedom without ever having tasted the bitter taste of slavery, raised on manna and miracles, are currently focused on one thing and one thing only: crossing the Jordan into Canaan and beginning the long march of conquest and inheritance of the promised land of Israel, the land of their forefathers and the land of their own children and their children's children, forever and ever.
The final two Torah portions of Numbers, Matot and Masei, are read together this Shabbat, bringing our wilderness experience to an end. The older generation, the generation that laid it all on the line slaughtering their Passover offerings in Egypt, leaving their lives of servitude behind at midnight, crossing the Sea of Reeds and standing at Sinai hearing the voice of G-d and the Ten Commandments, are no more. They have all perished in the desert, save Moshe, whose time, G-d has assured him, has come. The heroes and villains, whose names will remain with us forever, have all passed on, never reaching the land flowing with milk and honey, promised them by G-d, but squandered by their own fears and lack of faith.
We can feel the energy and excitement of the Israelite encampment as loose ends are tied and final preparations are made for the entry into the land of Canaan. Once they step over the Jordan river and set foot on the soil of Canaan their reality will change forever. The manna will no longer appear each morning. Finding sustenance will be the sole responsibility of the children of Israel, with G-d's help, of course. A multitude of cities and nation states await them, each one needing to be displaced and settled, an enormous task, not to be belittled, but lest Israel grow complacent, G-d issues this final warning: "But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the Land from before you, then those whom you leave over will be as spikes in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they will harass you in the land in which you settle. And it will be that what I had intended to do to them, I will do to you."(Numbers 33:55-56)
And there are last minute hitches and controversies, as well. The overwhelming defeat of their bitter enemy Midian and their prophet Bilaam has brought with it vast booty which needs to be divided fairly, a task which takes up much of the first half of our Torah reading. And the unexpected appeal of the tribes of Reuven and Gad to make their homes on the newly conquered lands east of the Jordan causes Moshe's fuses to pop, as flashbacks of the sin of the spies fill his head, and the prospect of a second national breakdown and yet another unanticipated eternity in the wilderness fill him with dread. The leaders of Reuven and Gad counter Moshe's fierce admonition with a far reaching proposal to become the vanguard of the Israelite army on their quest for territory, a proposal which put's Moshe's mind at ease, but not without one final word of warning: "But, if you do not do so, behold, you will have sinned against HaShem, and be aware of your sin which will find you." (ibid 32:23) (Happily, we are told in the book of Joshua that they did fulfill their end of the deal.)
Last minute details concerning the issue of female inheritance of tribal lands, first successfully broached by Machlah, Tirtzah, Choglah, Milcah, and Noa, the daughters of Tzelophchad, are ironed out, and finally, the forty two way stations at which Israel encamped throughout their forty years in the wilderness are meticulously recorded by Moshe at G-d's command. Israel's forty years in the wilderness between slavery and sovereignty, between Egypt and Israel, between the generation of the exodus, also known as the generation of knowledge, and the generation of the conquest of Canaan, are the formative years of the nation of Israel. Every act and every deed, national or personal, that the children of Israel have committed in the generations since Sinai, right up to the present moment, are part of the wilderness journey. Every triumph and every calamity can be seen and analyzed in the light of the dramatic ups and downs which took place in the desert so many years ago. Remembering these events, the names and faces of the protagonists and antagonists that rose up to lead or to challenge Israel in the wilderness, the unnamed masses who sang in ecstatic joy and thanksgiving, and who complained bitterly for reasons both good and bad, and, of course, G-d's guiding, loving hand, which, despite Israel's many provocations, was assuaged and forgiving, time and time again, all constitute Israel's roadmap from those days forward.
Today Israel is a modern state, filled with the returning tribes, each bringing with them traditions learned along the way, a state bustling with energy and vision, with cutting edge technology and industry, a state faced with endless challenges. But to understand Israel today one need only to delve into and understand the lessons and nuances of Israel's wilderness experiences, her challenges and her responses, both praiseworthy and not, in order to gain a clear picture of Israel today. Despite all the challenges, we made it then, and we will make it today. Long live Israel!