Wilderness; Trial or Opportunity?

by Moshe Kempinski

Wilderness and Exile can be a punishment or a trial or even an opportunity. Clearly we can understand that both exile and wilderness functions as a trial and punishment . we see this in the words of HaShem following the evil report that the ten spies brought after their sojourn in the land. ;
” In this desert, your corpses shall fall; your entire number, all those from the age of twenty and up, who were counted, because you complained against Me.” ( Numbers 14:29)

Yet on the other hand we read the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
“Go and call out in the ears of Jerusalem, saying: so said HaShem: 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. )

Furthermore it is the prophet Hoshea who reveals the redeeming powers of the wilderness when he says; ” Therefore, behold I will allure her and lead her into the desert, and I will speak comfortingly to her heart. And I will give her her vineyards from there and the depth of trouble for a door of hope, and she shall dwell there as in the days of her youth, and as the day of her ascent from the land of Egypt. ” ( Hoshea 2:16-17)

So we must understand what exactly happened to these “distinguished men ” whom Moshe sends in to spy out the land. This is especially important as we know that it is this failure and sin of the spies that will continue to haunt our people unto this very day.

The Gaon of Vilna, wrote that it is the “sin of the spies” that will plague the Jewish people throughout the generations until the last days. “Many will fall in this great sin of, ‘They despised the cherished Land.’ Also many guardians of the Torah will not know or understand that they are caught in the sin of the Spies…” (Kol HaTor, Ch.5).

We read in the beginning of the Torah portion of Shelach , “Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel. You shall send one man each for his father’s tribe; each one shall be a chieftain in their midst.”*(Numbers 13:2). Furthermore these were not just leaders but rather ” All of them were men of distinction; they were the heads of the children of Israel.” ( ibid)

Yet when they return from their mission we hear their declaration” . But the men who went up with him said, “We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we. They spread an [evil] report about the land which they had scouted,……….There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.” (ibid 13:3)

What happened to these men of distinction?

Why were they afraid of entering a land whose inhabitants were themselves so fearful of the children of Israel as we read in the haftara of Rahav’s declaration to the spies sent into Jericho by Joshua?
“And she said to the men, I know that HaShem has given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have melted away because of you..”(Joshua 2:9)
Her words simply being an echo of what was prophetically sung at the red sea; “People heard, they trembled; a shudder seized the inhabitants of Philistia.15. Then the chieftains of Edom were startled; [as for] the powerful men of Moab, trembling seized them; all the inhabitants of Canaan melted.”( Exodus 15:.14)

Then what happened to these “men of distinction”?

Our sages reveal two differing reasons that actually stem from the same source.

On the one hand The Baal HaTanya asks what led the other ten spies who were clearly chosen because of their spiritual greatness, to fail. Why would men of such great spiritual awareness not want to physically enter the land of Israel? These men, he explains, had experienced the highest spiritual experiences that mortals can envision. They experienced G-d’s great hand in Egypt and at the Red Sea and they heard the Divine voice at Mount Sinai. They lived in the desert but they drank from the miraculous well of Miriam and ate of the manna from heaven and were protected in their voyage by the very clouds of Glory. Why would they want to leave all of that purely spiritual experience and lower themselves into a land where they would by necessity become involved with the physicality of reality. They believed that spirituality is best separated from the physical. They misunderstood the ” comforting words of Hashem” that the prophet Hoshea spoke about.

On the other hand we recognize in the words of the spies a deep and painful psychological wound that still remains as an open sore in the psyche of many Jewish people today. “In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”(Numbers 13:33-)

The weakness of these leaders wasn’t physical, it was optical . It was a weakness of vision. It was a failure in believing in their Divine destiny. It was a failure in believing in their worthiness of being G-d’;s tool in this plan of destiny. Therein lays the trap and the problem.

On the one hand they wanted to live in the spiritual womb that was their wilderness exile. On the other hand they felt unworthy to walk into their destiny which involved revealing the spiritual in the physical. Yet both of these attributes are born out of the same sense of deep insecurity and fear of the trials and tribulations of physical reality

. It is that insecurity that still plagues and hampers the people of Israel throughout the world. Exile is not only a physical reality of space but is actually more so, a spiritual reality of spirit and soul. As a result so many of our brothers and sisters still live in the artificial wombs of Torah centered communities and still believe that they can “sing the song of HaShem on foreign soil?” ( Psalms 137:4) . Similarly many of those living in this land have begun to see themselves as grasshoppers facing insurmountable enemies from without so they resort to stilling the strengthening voices calling fro redemption within ” The entire congregation threatened to pelt them ( Joshua and Calev) with stones, “( Numbers 14:10)

Yet in the days of Exodus there were only two people to stand up with a “different spirit” . Today there are hundreds of thousands in Hebron, Bet-El , Migron and throughout the cities of this land. It is their struggles against what sometimes seems to be impossible odds which will in the end reveal and declare the cry of Calev…” “‘We should go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it” It is then and only then that the second part of the verse mentioned earlier will be fulfilled”..But the glory of HaShem appeared…. to all the children of Israel.”( “( Numbers 14:10

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