Throughout the time in the desert, the Jews complain. They complain about the lack of water, the lack of food, the type of food, and then finally in Sh’lach, they complain about G-d’s desire to bring them to Eretz Yisrael. This seals their fate – they will not live to see the land; rather, they wander in the desert until each adult male between the ages of twenty and sixty perishes. What was so egregious about this complaint? Was it just that they rejected G-d’s land? Had they just challenged G-d one time too many? Or, perhaps, was there something particularly insidious about this rebellion?
If one traces the trajectory of the Jews’ grumblings through the desert, one finds a development. When they first leave Egypt, we find three consecutive complaints – first they beg for water, then food, then water again. While Moshe is upset, Hashem seems less so, instructing Moshe to provide for their needs in each case. Their requests are understandable – they are in the desert and are afraid they are going to die from thirst or starvation. Nevertheless, Moshe realizes that there is more to the story. In the second
water story, Moshe names the place Masah U’Merivah, because “you tested G-d, saying, ‘is G-d in our midst or not.”’ (Sh’mot 17:7) While on the surface they want food and water, the source of their angst is a doubt that G-d, though He took them out of Egypt, has continued to care for them. While they should have seen that G-d did care after He miraculously gave them water the first time, and He subsequently gave them heavenly bread, they were a young nation and could be forgiven for being unsure of their place in G-d’s plan.
A year later, when they ask for food again in the story of the Mitonenim (Bamidbar 11), things have changed. They have food, but they detest it. Many commentators have suggested that the Jews don’t like being dependent on miracles, vulnerable to G-d. They know G-d is among them, but the arrangement makes them uncomfortable. A careful read of that unit reveals that they don’t mention God it is as if they want to deny the source of the manna. This rejection of G-d’s gift causes Moshe to nearly throw in the towel, until G-d provides him with seventy people who can help him “carry the people.”
However, in the story of the Meraglim, the people go too far. “Why is G-d bringing us to this land to kill us by the sword?” (Bamidbar 14:3) They are neither doubtful nor ambiguous about G-d’s presence among them. Finally, they frankly admit that G-d is with them, but while in the past they had hoped for that connection, now they acknowledge G-d and reject Him. Yehoshua and Kalev recognize the new level of gall and respond accordingly: “If G-d desires us, then He will bring us into this land, and give it to us – a land which flows with milk and honey. Just don’t rebel against G-d. Don’t fear the people of the land; for they are our bread… and G-d is with us; don’t fear them.” (Bamidbar 14:8-9) Yes, G-d is with us – and that’s a good thing! It is why we have hope, not a reason to despair. But the Jews reject this and
threaten to kill Yehoshua and Kalev. For G-d, this is the last straw. “And G-d said to Moshe: ‘How long will this people spite Me? and how long will they not believe in Me, for all the signs which I have wrought among them? I will smite them with pestilence, and destroy them, and will make of thee a nation greater and mightier than they.” (14:11-12)
This is not doubt – this is hatred. No matter how much G-d has done for them, they still cannot accept that He is not only among them, but that He is doing everything for their benefit. This is more than rebellion – it is rejection of their relationship with G-d. For this, they must die.
The greatness of Moshe is not just that he saves the Jewish people (if not enough to allow them to undo all the damage), but that he manages to broker a new relationship where none seemed possible. In that darkest moment, Moshe reminds us that no matter how far we have sunk, we can still return.
This dvar Torah was from this week’s Toronto Torah: here