Understanding the Sins in the Desert
The Portion begins with the Jewish people on the threshold of entering Israel but ends with a series of sins that culminates with the sin of the spies and the decree to spend forty years in the desert. Included in the sins that the Jewish people committed in this Portion are their over-eagerness to leave Mount Sinai after learning Torah there for nearly one year(1) and the sin of the 'meat of lust,' where they complained about the manna and demanded to be given meat instead.
Taken on a superficial level, these sins paint a very critical picture of the actions of the Jewish people. They are portrayed as lustful people, desirous of base physical pleasures who did not appreciate the deeper satisfaction offered by learning Torah at Mount Sinai and the spiritual benefits of eating manna from heaven.
This cannot in truth be the case, for it is clear that the Jewish people were clearly on a very high spiritual level. They had experienced numerous miracles throughout the Exodus and had recently heard God directly communicate with them. Based on this, it is impossible to understand the events in the Portion on a superficial level. As in all the sins enumerated in the Torah, it is clear that there must have been understandable reasons guiding the people's behavior, and their actual sin was very subtle.
Rav Avraham Grodzinsky(2) answers these problems. He explains that the Jewish people had been living a lifestyle that was beyond the laws of nature. They did not eat regular food, they did not need to involve themselves in domestic chores such as washing clothes, there was no need for them to farm the land, and they were constantly witnessing open miracles. This is not generally the way of life that God confers on human beings - we are supposed to live in the world of nature and physicality and strive to elevate the physical world by using it for spiritual motives. God does not want us to be like Malachim (angels) who are free of the tests that befall man, rather He wants us to use our free will to pass these tests and thereby earn our relationship with Him. However, God, in His wisdom, 'decided' that it was necessary for the generation of the desert to live a life that was indeed similar to that of the Angels. They needed that time of pure spirituality in order to prepare themselves for their future life of living within the laws of nature. This would enable them, at a later point in time, to be involved in the physical world and yet remain connected to the purpose of connecting to God.
The seeming 'downside' of this situation is that while they were living a supernatural lifestyle, they were not subject to the tests and subsequent opportunities of developing a relationship to God by overcoming the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. Rather they were spoon fed a relationship with Him without having earned it. This is the background leading up to the events of this week's Parsha. After having spent nearly a year immersed in pure spirituality, they felt that they were now ready to reenter the physical world. Their motivation was essentially leshem shayamim (for altruistic reasons); they wanted to apply all the spirituality that they had absorbed at Har Sinai to enable them to elevate the physical world.
This is the reason for their eagerness to leave Mount Sinai, it was not motivated by a childish desire to 'escape', rather a yearning to live a life where they could elevate the physical world. This also helps us understand why they rejected the manna and desired to eat meat. The manna epitomized a supernatural lifestyle and they felt ready to leave that temporary state and begin an existence where they ate normal food and live a life within the laws of nature. This, they felt, would enable them to get closer to God because they would be faced with all the tests that accompany a physical existence.
We have now developed a far more sophisticated understanding of the sins of the Jewish people in the desert. Nonetheless they were severely punished for their actions indicating that there must have been a subtle flaw in their reasoning. Rav Grodzinsky explains that the time for them to return to a normal existence had not yet arrived. They still needed a little more time of living in a supernatural fashion in order to sufficiently prepare them for the challenges that would await them. Their desire to leave was a little premature and consequently had God fulfilled it at that time, then the consequences would have been grave because they would not have been able to pass the tests that they would face. Moreover, it seems that their punishment was particularly severe because they should not have made their own calculations as to when they were ready to leave the supernatural existence, rather they should have trusted God's judgment.(3)
Rav Grodzinsky derives two vital lessons from his explanation of the sins in the desert. Firstly, that we need a time of spiritual preparation where we are sheltered from the numerous challenges that characterize the 'outside world', and it is essential that we do not leave this situation prematurely because to do so means to place ourselves with challenges that we are not yet on the level to overcome. Secondly, he writes that we also learn that there is a point in time where we must, in some fashion, leave that spiritual 'bubble' and enter the physical world of challenges. God does not want us to permanently live like Angels; He wants us to elevate the physical world and thereby attain true closeness to him.
These lessons vary greatly according to each person but the general principles seem to apply to everyone. We do not have the opportunity to live a supernatural life like the generation of the desert, however, the modern day equivalent is time spent focusing on spiritual growth where one is shielded from the numerous distractions of daily life. This is commonly represented by time spent in yeshiva or seminary where a person can focus on building himself spiritually without having to be overly burdened by physical concerns. It is highly recommended for anyone who has the opportunity to spend a certain amount of time (there is no 'correct' length of time) in yeshiva or seminary to do so. A person can grow more in a relatively short time in this spiritual haven than years of trying to learn and grow whilst simultaneously be in involved the in the daily challenges of life. For those that do not have this opportunity or whom have already passed that phase in life, the message of Rav Grodzinsky is still relevant. The time spent in the Beit Hamidrash (study hall) or synagogue represents a microcosm of that time of spiritual preparation. It is stressed by Rabbis that in this time it is essential that a person shut himself off from his outside life and devote himself totally to his spiritual pursuits in this time each day. For example, it is advised that one should turn off all his devices whilst learning and praying so that we cannot be sidetracked by our daily business.
The second lesson of the Rav Grodzinsky is also relevant to our lifestyle. In some form there is a time when everyone is required to leave the hallowed existence of pure spirituality. This does not necessarily mean stopping learning or teaching Torah full-time, it can manifest itself in the form of getting married and having children. These stages in life invariably require a person to involve himself in less obvious spiritual pursuits such as running the finances of a family, feeding children and reading bedtime stories. However, since God requires us to enter these phases in life it is clear that they represent a key part of our Divine Service. For other people, this phase may require them to enter into the world of work where they face new challenges accompanied by new opportunities for growth that were not attainable in yeshiva. Examples of this include the test of being honest in business and maintaining appropriate levels of modesty.
However these lessons manifest themselves, the lessons of Rav Grodzinsky are clear. May we merit applying them correctly to our lives.
1. The Rabbis say that they left Mount Sinai with a similar attitude to a child who runs away from school!
2. A great man, he was the Mashgiach (spiritual guide) of the great Yeshiva of Slobodka. He was murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
3. Indeed this seems to be the common theme behind all the sins of great people that are discussed in the Torah. They have seemingly understandable motivations but the problem is that they invariably involve going against God's command in some fashion. (Examples of this include Adam's sin, the sin of the Golden Calf and the sin of the spies.)