ARE WE THERE YET?
Rabbi David Walk
One of the biggest differences between our world and the pre-modern world is the ease of travel. Most of us don't sweat a trek around the world. I was recently listening to a couple discussing how they traveled from Australia to the US during the period of Counting the Omer, between Pesach and Shavuot. The husband was very concerned because he crossed the International Date Line and was, therefore, on a different count than the rest of us in North America. The wife, on the other hand, had travelled via Israel and was in sync with us. But the husband told me not to worry, he would return Down Under, re-crossing the Date Line before Shavuot and undoing the damage in time to celebrate Shavuot with the other Aussie Jews. No rabbi of the Mishneh, Talmud or the Rishonim (1000-1500 CE) ever discussed this halachic problem, because no one had ever circumnavigated the globe until 1522 and the practice didn't become commonplace for over three more centuries. It wasn't until the twentieth century that people travelled long distances for any but dire reasons. However, today we all hear people discuss trips to the Far East or Oceania as if it were a jaunt to the Hamptons, but I'm not one of them. I limit my travel to places where I have close family at the other end, basically the US and Israel. I've yet to cross either the Date Line or the Equator, and am in no hurry to do either. Our parsha reinforces my misgivings about travel, with our ancient brethren sounding very much like annoying children in the back seat during a road trip.
It all starts off very hopefully. On the twentieth of Iyar in the second year out from Egypt, Moshe tells his father-in-law, Chovav (aka Yitro) that the nation is setting out for the Promised Land, just a few days' journey. He is so cheerful about the prospects that in his two sentence plea he uses variations on the Hebrew word tov (good) five times (Numbers 10:29 & 32). That sounds great, but more ominously he begs Chovav to stay, explaining that they can use his expertise, because he knows the good camping places and he can serve as a guide ('eyes'). Maybe Moshe isn't as confident as he sounds.
In any event, within three days the Jews are whining and things turn decidedly unpleasant. Why did things go so very bad, so very fast? The beginning of the next chapter is instructive: The people were looking to complain, and it was evil in the ears of the Lord…But the foreign multitude among them began to have greedy desires. Then even the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, 'Who will feed us meat? (11:1 & 4).' The phrase 'greedy desires' translates the Hebrew hitavo ta'ava, which comes from the word for lust or appetite. So, the many non-Jews who left Egypt with our ancestors infected the nation with the craving bug, and once affected the infection grew quickly. What made the camp so susceptible? Perhaps it was the nature of travel. There was complaining and whining back in the desert travel between the Sea and Mt. Sinai. We might have thought, though, that those complaints had a basis in reality, and now that there was the manna and Miriam's Well, providing basic food and water, the nation could travel without major unrest. But we'd be wrong! Immediately when the foreign contingent experienced the hardship of travel 'they made themselves into complainers' and it spread like wildfire. And the generation never recovered. But there's another approach.
Many commentaries observed another catalyst to the unrest, which is more subtle and, therefore, harder to discern. It's proposed in a Midrash quoted by the Ramban, 'They travelled away from Mt. Sinai gleefully like school children, who run from class saying that perhaps God will give us more mitzvoth if we stay.' The problem began before the whining, which was a result of actual travel. This Midrash is cited by the Talmud (TB Shabat 116a), and is accounted as a sin. But what was the sin? The verse says they travelled from Mt. Sinai; the Talmud calls it 'from after (or following) God'. Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg in her book, Bewilderments (p. 68), compares this to Ruth who tells Naomi that she desires to go 'after you' and the verse in Jeremiah when the Jews are praised by God for going 'after Me' in the desert. Dr. Zornberg says, 'To go after is to be enthralled—like the children who follow the Pied Piper, to death or to bliss.' We lost that lovin' feeling, and it wasn't to be regained by that generation.
We Jews had been in love at Mt. Sinai, but we couldn't maintain it when we left the shadow of the mountain, the site of our tryst. The Ramban had suggested (his introduction to the book of Exodus) that the Mishkan or portable temple was to maintain God's presence in the camp as if we had never left Mt. Sinai. It wasn't to be. That fragile people who escaped slavery cracked at the first crisis, and over the next Torah readings proved to be very Humpty Dumpty-like. They couldn't be fixed; so they had to be replaced. But we don't discover the extent of the rupture until next week's Torah reading, when we encounter the incident of the spies, which is, perhaps the central narrative of Numbers. However, the initial damage is done here.
We don't know anyone's true character until they are challenged by adversity. Boy, has history challenged our people! But is that true of Generation X'ers or Millennials? I'm not sure. Since the Yom Kippur War the threats to Jewish survival have been more theoretical or potential than immanent. Maybe this is the new reality, but our history says periods of relative safety (Golden Ages of Spain, Poland and Central Europe) are rare and brief. So, we keep a suitcase packed and hope that we face travel and adversity better than Generation Midbar.