Last week, we completed the Book of Leviticus, also called “Torat Hakohanim” (the Torah of the Priests), due to its many commandments dealing with kohanim and their roles. This week, we begin reading the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar), and return to the story of Am Yisrael after its exodus from Egypt on its way to the Land of Israel.
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bamidbar, opens this way: “And the Lord spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert....” (Numbers 1, 1) The Book of Numbers deals in its entirety with the 40-year period in which Am Yisrael was in the Sinai Desert. In examining this book, we learn about the complex situation that Am Yisrael faced at that time. On the one hand, we read about the preparations made for the long stay in the desert: general census, organization of the desert camps according to division into tribes, and more; as well as the preparations for entering the Land of Israel: another census, the appointment of Joshua as Moshe Rabbeinu’s replacement, etc. But on the other hand, we read about several less pleasant incidents that took place in the desert, such as the nation’s complaints, the sin of the spies, the dispute with Korach and his cohorts, the “waters of dispute” affair, and more.
And thus, the reader gets a negative impression making it possible to think that this era was one of the worst in the relationship between Am Yisrael and G-d.
Centuries later, we read of the prophecy of Jeremiah the Prophet that begins with the following words: “Go and call out in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, ‘So said the Lord: I remember to you the lovingkindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials, your following Me in the desert, in a land not sown.’” (Jeremiah 2,2) Jeremiah’s words describe Am Yisrael’s time in the desert as a time comparable to a couple falling in love. “Lovingkindness of your youth” and “the love of your nuptials” are terms that cannot be misunderstood.
The nation’s desert journey is described as one of devotedly following G-d without consideration of the difficulties – walking in a “land not sown.”
The first period when a couple lives together is a complicated time. On the one hand, it is the “honeymoon” stage when the members of the couple disconnect from their previous lives and adjust to their common one. But on the other hand, it is a time when patience and tolerance are needed. The couple reveals their true personalities to one another and faces the challenges inherent in beginning their lives together.
That is the answer to the following question: How could Bnei Yisrael sin in the desert after they witnessed with their own eyes the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai? The answer is that they did indeed experience lofty experiences, but after a good experience, when real-life begins, difficulties arise that must be solved, difficulties that can cause unpleasant complications.
When the prophet describes the period in the desert as nuptial love, he means that this was the period containing the complexities that characterize the beginning of life together. Love and friendship, but also difficulties of adjustment and other less pleasant situations. Devotion and loyalty, but also failures and intricacies.
But despite this, summarizes the prophet, Am Yisrael followed G-d. In summarizing the first period of time, after the couple overcomes the difficulties and remains together, their love increases and develops and becomes more stable and stronger.
Am Yisrael, despite the difficulties and sins that occurred in the desert, remained faithful to the covenant with G-d and therefore it is always worthy of G-d’s grace and love.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.