The book of Bamidbar is perhaps one of the saddest, so to speak, of all of
the Holy Scriptures. Whereas the book of Shemot, which records for us the
sin of the Golden Calf also gives us pause, it concludes with the final
construction of the Mishkan and God’s Presence, so to speak, resting within
the encampment of Israel. But the book of Bamidbar, which begins on a high
note of numerical accomplishment and the seemingly imminent entry of the
Jewish people into he Land of Israel, ends on a very sour note. It records
the destruction of the entire generation including its leadership without
their entrance into the Promised Land.
The narrative of the book of Bamidbar tells us of rebellion and constant
carping, military defeats and victories, false blessings, human prejudices
and personal bias. But the Torah warned us in its very first chapters that
“this is the book of human beings.” And all of the weaknesses exhibited by
Israel in the desert of Sinai, as recorded for us in the book of Bamidbar,
are definitely part of the usual human story and nature.
Over the decades that I have taught this book of Bamidbar to students and
congregants of mine, invariably many of them have then asked me
incredulously: ”How could the Jewish people have behaved in such a manner?”
I cannot speak for that generation of Jews as described in the book of
Bamidbar but I wonder to myself “How can so many Jews in our generation
relate to the existence of the State of Israel in our time so cavalierly?
How do we tolerate the cruelties that our one-size-fits-all school systems
inflict on the ‘different’ child? How do we subject our daughters to the
indignities of the current matchmaking process? How, indeed!?” And my answer
to myself always is that for the great many of us, human nature trumps
common sense, logic and true Torah values. I imagine that this may have been
true of the generation of the book of Bamidbar as well.
One of the wonders of the book of Bamidbar is that the count of the Jewish
people at the end of the forty years of living in the desert was almost
exactly the same as it was at the beginning of their sojourn there when they
left Egyptian bondage. Though the following is certainly not being proposed
by me as an answer or explanation to this unusual fact, I have always
thought that this is a subtle reminder to us that that no matter how great
the experiences, no matter how magnificent the miracles, no matter how great
the leaders, human nature with all of its strengths and weaknesses basically
remains the same.
It is not only that the numbers don’t change much, the people and the
generations didn’t and don’t change much either. Human nature remains pretty
constant. But our task is to recognize that and channel our human nature
into productive and holy actions and behavior – to bend to a nobility of
will and loyalty. Only by recognizing the propensity of our nature will we
be able to accomplish this necessary and noble goal.
Shabat shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Berel Wein