Introduction to Bamidbar: The Book of Failure and Hope
Rabbi Reuven Mann
Part I: Doom in the Desert
Bamidbar, the fourth Book of the Torah, begins at a propitious moment in Jewish history, the second year after the great redemption from Egypt. Much had transpired during that time: the nation had “encountered” God on Mount Sinai and received His Torah.
The Israelites then remained encamped around the mountain for a year, because there was much to accomplish. They had to study the Torah and learn to perform the mitzvot (commandments). In addition, the nation was preoccupied with building the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the precursor to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
The year had been marked by an especially grievous calamity. The sin of the Golden Calf was one of the worst in Jewish history, bringing the nation to the precipice of destruction. Fortunately, Moses’ prayerful intervention saved the day and the people resumed their tasks. In the second year after the Exodus, the dedication of the Mishkan was complete, and all preparations were made for the conquest and settlement of the Land that God had promised Abraham to give to his children.
The Book of Bamidbar begins on a certain high note. One can sense Moses’ enthusiasm as he entreats his father-in-law, Jethro, to join the people in settling Israel so he can partake of all the blessings that Hashem has in store for the Jews.
However, Moses’ initial excitement did not endure. The Book of Bamidbar, which was supposed to be filled with glory and accomplishment, turned out to be the saddest and most disappointing in the entire Torah.
It did not take long for a spirit of rebelliousness to break out. We read about the revolt over food, with the people complaining about the monotony of the manna. (See “The True Leader,” page 42, and “Rebellion in the Wilderness,” page 59). This brought forth a severe punishment from God. Why, at this point, did the people see fit to complain about their diet? Did the sudden outbreak of discontent manifest an underlying anxiety about the imminent invasion of Canaan?
One might think so, because the Book of Bamidbar is dominated by the tragic incident of the Spies. In response to Moses’ injunction to “go up and conquer” (Deuteronomy 1:21), the people asked to send men on a mission to scout out the land and return with a report about their findings.
This turned out to be a disaster, because the Spies infected the people with extreme panic about the might of the land’s inhabitants. (See “The Sin of the Spies: Excessive Guilt,” page 66, and “The Spies,” page 73). God responded with His decree that the conquest of the land would be postponed for 40 years, until the entire generation of adults who had left Egypt passed away. This development converted Bamidbar into a Book of sadness and failure.
The terrible decree further impacted the people in that it generated a series of rebellions. Most outrageous was that of Korah and his “congregation,” who openly plotted to derail Moses’ religious authority. Korah sought to overturn Moses’ appointment of Aaron as the Kohain and the Levite Tribe as the administrators of the Temple.
It is important to note that Korah’s rebellion and the debacle of the Spies were the work of distinguished, national leaders. Only Hashem’s providential intervention enabled Moses to retain his authority and control over the nation. But he was continuously challenged by the insubordination of discontented personalities.
Bamidbar illustrates that, indeed, even our greatest leaders are subject to sin. In this Book, we learn about the transgressions of Moses’ sister, Miriam, and his brother, Aaron. Incomprehensibly, she “complained” that Moses had separated from his wife (Rashi on Numbers 12:1). He had done so at God’s behest, because he had reached the highest level of prophecy, and had to be constantly ready for divine communication. However, Miriam was not aware of this, and her criticism was deemed to be inappropriate.
The rebellious spirit of the people eventually took its toll on Moses and Aaron, and they stumbled. When the people complained about the absence of water, God told Moses and Aaron to “speak to the rock, that it give forth its waters” (Numbers 20:8). Inexplicably, Moses hit the rock, and Hashem regarded this as a failure to sanctify His Name in the midst of the Congregation.
The punishment was harsh and irrevocable. Moses, who had led the Jews out of Egypt, brought down the Torah from Mount Sinai and guided the Israelites on their trek through the Wilderness, would not complete the mission by leading them in their glorious conquest of the Land.
The Book of Bamidbar contains many other sad stories, such as the encounter with the wicked Balaam. It is true that God thwarted his desire to utter “curses” against the Jewish people. However, this evil “prophet” left his mark, as Jewish males fell prey to his nefarious scheme of entrapment. Balaam advised the women of Moab to use sexual seduction to lure the Jewish men into the worship of the idol Peor (see “Religious Zealots,” page 180.) This trespass was so egregious that it caused a plague, leading to the death of 24,000 people.
Part II: Greatness of Spirit
While there is much that is of a negative character in Bamidbar, that is not the Book’s total story. Alongside of the failures we have recounted, there are episodes of spiritual grandeur.
Prior to the first anniversary of the Exodus, Moses commanded the Nation to bring the Passover Sacrifice on the 14th of Nissan in accordance with all its “Statutes and Judgements” (Numbers 9:3). Among its requirements is the rule that anyone in a state of ritual impurity, because of contact with a corpse, is disqualified from performing this mitzvah (commandment). According to Jewish law, a person who fails to fulfill a commandment because of circumstances beyond his control bears no guilt before God.
In spite of that dispensation, a group of such “impure” people came before Moses and implored him to be given another opportunity, at a time when they would have become ritually pure, to bring the Passover offering. Moses inquired of God, who responded by establishing the Law of the “Second Passover,” which commands all who were unable (or unwilling) to offer the Passover on its initial date to do so at an alternative time (the 14th of the Hebrew month of Iyar).
Let us recognize the nobility of spirit which motivated these “impure” people to issue their request. They would have suffered no consequences for failure to perform the ritual, so what was it that motivated their plea?
Apparently, these people recognized and appreciated the great spiritual benefits afforded by fulfillment of the Commandments, especially the Passover, whose central theme is the renunciation of Idolatry. Moreover, they understood how fundamental this particular mitzvah is to the Jewish People as a commemoration of the Exodus. They did not want to be prevented from bonding with their brothers and sisters in this great experience.This expression of commitment to Torah and the Jewish People represents a high point in the history of the Jews.
Greatness of spirit can also be seen in the interaction between Moses and the representatives of the tribes of Reuben and Gad. Moses had conquered the land on the Eastern side of the Jordan. (See “Dealing with Chutzpah, page 174). This territory contained vast expanses of rich pasture which was perfectly suited for these tribes, who had large holdings of livestock. They requested that Moses allow them to forfeit their portion on the Western side of the Jordan and instead take their inheritance on this newly acquired area. Upon hearing this, Moses became furious and lashed out, accusing them of repeating the crime of the Spies, who induced the national panic that halted the forward march to Israel.
The leaders of the two tribes got the message. They offered to be in the vanguard of the invading forces and lead the battle for the Promised Land. They would remain with their brothers until the land of Israel was conquered and settled. Only then would they return to their families on the other side of the Jordan.
An agreement was struck between the parties and peace was preserved. Subsequently, the two tribes fulfilled all their guarantees. They fought at the head of their brothers for 14 years until the conquest was complete. The ability of the people to rise above partisan interests and work out viable compromises that retained national unity reflects a high level of idealism and commitment which should motivate and inspire us today.
Part III: Rectification of Sin
Beyond the stories recorded in Bamidbar, a number of new Commandments are revealed by Moses in this Book. In addition to Second Passover they include Sotah, Nazir, Tzitzit (fringes on garments), Red Heifer, Purging of Vessels and more.
One may rightfully ask, is there a connection between the Mitzvot detailed here and the narratives communicated in this Book? What philosophical relevance do these religious imperatives have to the moral themes of the stories we read here?
Addressing these questions necessarily entails a bit of speculation, but I would like to put forth a certain hypothesis. As I see it, the narratives of Bamidbar are primarily about the failures and setbacks experienced by the Jews on their journey to God’s land. Thus, we must ask, what is the teaching of the Torah on the subject of man’s defeats in the Milchemet HaChaim (the “Battle of Life”)?
I would like to suggest that it is that we are never to be broken by our inability to attain our goals or live up to our standards of moral excellence. While Bamidbar is a Book of failure, it is also one of hope, because Judaism is rooted in the doctrine of the perfectibility of man and of mankind.
Many of the Commandments in Bamidbar are based on the idea of correcting defects and repairing sin. They presuppose that man is prone to failure, but, that he can overcome it. The Torah prescribes corrective measures to transform weaknesses into strengths, flaws into capabilities. Setbacks can become the catalyst for growth and progress.
For example, the institution of Nazir consists of a vow to abstain from wine, not cut one’s hair, and avoid any contact with a corpse. This is a completely voluntary mitzvah, as no one is obligated to become a Nazirite.
In general, Judaism eschews asceticism and favors disciplined and moderate gratification of one’s desires, and this seems to be at odds with the suppression of bodily pleasure symbolized by the restrictions incumbent on a Nazir. However, sometimes a person goes to extremes of indulgence and needs to be weaned of his excesses. It might then be wise to take upon himself, for a limited amount of time, a vow of abstention. This temporary extreme of self-denial will allow him to regain his moral equilibrium. The mitzvah of Nazirut guides a person who has allowed himself to get caught up in a hedonistic lifestyle to find his way back to the intelligent and moderate pathway of Torah. (See “Reverence for the Soul” on page 33).
Another theme expressed in Bamidbar’s Mitzvot is that of purification from sin and rebirth of the personality. Judaism asserts that man is a sinner by nature (although it vehemently rejects the notion that he is evil by nature). Because of this very nature, our path to perfection inevitably entails foolishness and irrational behaviors. However, the Creator also implanted in man the ability to recognize failures and overcome them.
It is therefore not by accident that the Commandment of the Red Heifer and that of Purging of Vessels make their appearance here. The former is concerned with man’s purification from the tumah (spiritual impurity) he acquires from his encounter with a dead body. The latter teaches that a vessel which has become ritually tainted by absorption of unkosher substances can be cleansed of those elements and once again become functional.
So too can the human personality expunge the negative attitudes and dispositions it has internalized, to become a new and better person. In fact, that is precisely what God did in response to the sin of the Spies. The decree of a 40-year trek in the wilderness was not exclusively a punishment. It was intended as an experience of training and growth. The Rambam explains, “It was the result of God’s wisdom that the Israelites were led about in the wilderness till they acquired courage. For it is a well-known fact that traveling in the wilderness and privation of bodily enjoyments such as bathing, produce courage, while the reverse is the source of faint-heartedness; besides another generation arose during the wandering that had not been accustomed to degradation and slavery”(Guide for the Perplexed, part 3, chapter 32).
Thus, in the book of Bamidbar, the Torah merges narratives of setbacks and rebellions with Commandments that pertain to man’s ability to rectify his transgressions and renew his spirit. The Torah is very optimistic about man’s ability to overcome sin and attain perfection.
Part IV: A World Redeemed
Despite the ominous events that seem to mark Bamidbar as a book of tragedy, Bamidbar may be rightly described as the Book of both failure and hope. That is because it emerges that the Jews are an eternal People.
In the words of the Rambam, “We are in possession of a divine assurance that Israel is indestructible and imperishable, and will always continue to be a preeminent community. As it is impossible for God to cease to exist, so is Israel’s destruction and disappearance from the world unthinkable, as we read, ‘For I the Lord change not, and you, O sons of Jacob, will not be consumed’ (Malachi 3:6). Similarly He has avowed and assured us that it is unimaginable that He will reject us entirely even if we disobey Him, and disregard His behests, as the prophet Jeremiah avers, ‘Thus says the Lord: If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, then will I also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, says the Lord’ (Jeremiah 31:36).” (Rambam’s “Epistle to Yemen,” in A Maimonides Reader by Isadore Twersky , p.445).
However, this assurance should not give rise to a sense of complacency or reduction of energy in pursuit of our national spiritual goals. For God will not miraculously transform us into righteous people. Neither will we be magically “saved.” He has implanted within us a divine soul that gives us the ability to choose. And He demands that we use that capacity to choose the good.
Therefore we must soberly recognize that there is a lot of work that needs to be done. We must assiduously pursue truth and strive to live by it in all areas of life. We must not be deterred by failures and setbacks. We must never quit the moral and spiritual battlefield. Bamidbar is a Book that gives us hope, but does not relieve us of responsibility.
We should remember that in spite of the many tragedies recounted in Bamidbar, the Jewish People did enter the Promised Land and established a society which rose to great heights. Both Temples were destroyed and a long and bitter Exile ensued. And yet, our generation has been granted the privilege to witness and participate in the fulfillment of the great Biblical prophecy of the return and regeneration of National Jewish existence.
This historical odyssey has been a long and difficult one, but Bamidbar inspires us to believe that the vision of mankind perfected and redeemed and a world at peace and harmony will be achieved. May it happen speedily and in our time.
Shabbat Shalom. Chag Shavuot Sameach.