“In truth, the generation of the Exodus, the Generation of Knowledge, could have been us.”
This week’s Parsha begins the fourth Book of the Torah. In Bamidbar, the ideal lifestyle of the Chosen People that was detailed in Sefer Vayikra, will be put to the test of practicality. Will the Bnai Yisroel be able to embrace the responsibilities of being G-d’s favorites and integrate the lessons of Vayikra into their daily living; or, will they resent the constant demands and expectations of having Hashem “dwell in their midst”? It appears that the great Generation of Knowledge, struggled with the very same issues we do. They too struggled with His presence; and at times, resented His intrusion into their lives.
Who was this generation that witnessed the overt, manifest power of the Creator, as no other generation? What differentiated this generation that witnessed the likes of the ten plagues, the parting of the sea, Manna falling from heaven, water pouring out from rocks, and revelation itself, from all other generations? We could assume that they were a “wise and understanding nation” deserving of that singular experience in history. Yet, as we will learn in Sefer Bamidbar, they were a “stiff necked people” who incessantly complained, opposed Moshe and Aharon’s divine appointments, and rebelled against Hashem’s constancy and demands. Who was this generation?
In truth, the generation of the Exodus, the Generation of Knowledge, could have been us. They were not unique or different, they were just people. Their story of struggle throughout the years in the desert is the same as our struggle in accepting our dependency on Hashem. Remember the formula: Recognition and acceptance of our total dependency upon Hashem, equals our obligation to listen to G-d’s rules and regulations. Therefore, although we are forced to recognize Hashem’s existence, we will invent, as they did, creative rationales, including the denial of His existence, to allow us to do as we desire, rather than as we are told.
Living in close proximity to Hashem’s manifest presence is very rewarding, but difficult. Imagine growing up as a prince or princess. On the one hand you have tremendous luxury and familiarity with the King. On the other hand, it is expected that you will behave in a manner that reflects royalty, and brings honor to your father, the King. So too, the Bnai Yisroel enjoyed an exclusive relationship with G-d, with all its benefits; but were expected to bring honor to G-d’s name by adhering to His demands and Mitzvos.
Over the centuries, many have suggested that the “biblical Jew” was neither knowledgeable nor sophisticated. They are depicted as a nomadic, slave clan who were brow beaten into submission through threats and superstitions. Eventually they grew into a nation, and the Torah is the historic document tracing their evolution from the primitive to the highly developed and intellectual.
An even cursory reading of Sefer Bamidbar tells a different story. The Jews of the Exodus were stubborn and proud. They accepted some of G-d’s demands on the basis of faith; however, they challenged their appointment to being “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. The Bnai Yisroel wanted to be as “all the other nations”. They wanted to enjoy the bounty of nature and be free to follow the dictates of their desires. They wanted to be as princes and princesses, but they didn’t want to pay the price of responsibility and leadership.
It becomes abundantly clear that they were not a meek and depressed people. They were challenging, difficult, and at times, courageous. They resented being told what to do while yearning to submit to G-d’s dominant presence. They experienced both spiritual ecstasy and intense frustration. They accepted Moshe’s singular greatness while resenting his imposing leadership. They were regretful and at the same time resentful. This was the generation known as the Generation of Knowledge. It is difficult to imagine that this complex and “stiff necked” people would easily submit to the dictates of a code that placed demands on their every thought, feeling, and action. In fact, as we learn in Sefer Bamidbar, they didn’t simply submit! It is therefore logical to conclude that their subsequent acceptance was due to their belief in the divinity of their mission as the Chosen People.
Parshas Bamidbar began prior to the problems rearing their rebellious heads. The Bnai Yisroel had been in the desert for 13 months. The Torah had been given, the Golden Calf had been worshipped and destroyed, the Mishkan had been constructed, and Sefer Vayikra had been taught. Moshe was commanded to count the working force of the nation, and each tribe was assigned their exclusive place in the camp and in the travel line-up. Shevet Layvie was separated from the rest of the nation to work in transporting the Mishkan, and the nation was ready to enter the Promised Land.
The first two and 1/2 Parshios: Bamidbar, Naso, and 12 of B’haloscha, focus on preparing the Bnai Yisroel to enter the Land. The transition from the desert to the Land would be traumatic, and the Bnai Yisroel needed to be prepared. Therefor, the key features of these two and 12 Parshios is transitionary aids and strategies. Whether the census, the individual placements of the tribes, or the selection of Shevet Layvie, the focus is securing the nations relationship with Hashem in the aftermath of the desert experience.
This week’s Parsha puts into perspective the most significant aid for guaranteeing the ongoing connection between the people and Hashem. In the desert G-d was overtly present. Between the daily miracles and the presence of Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam, the Bnai Yisroel were not just connected, they were overwhelmed. Upon crossing the Yarden, they would disperse throughout the land and loose their direct contact with the Mishkan and the nation’s spiritual leadership. Originally, the plan was to have the first born in each family devote himself exclusively to the work of the Mishkan and Torah scholarship. This would have created a direct connection between each family and the Mishkan. After the sin of the Golden Calf, that appointment was taken away from the first born and given to the Tribe of Layvie. That is why they had to be counted separately in direct exchange for the first born, (3:45) and why they weren’t given their own portion in Eretz Yisroel. This enabled them to settle throughout all the tribes as teachers, and maintain the people’s connection to the Mishkan and the nation’s leadership.
In many respects, Bamidbar, Naso and the first 1/2 of B’Haaloscha, are set apart from the rest of the Sefer. The remainder of Bamidbar focuses on the difficulties in integrating the ideals of Vayikra into daily living. The first 2 and 1/2 Parshios focus on the transition from the desert to the Land.
Copyright © 1998 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.