“To do well to you at your end” – Complaints of the next generation

  • Rav Gad Eldad

 

*********************************************************
In memory of Alice Stone, Ada Bat Avram, A"H, 
beloved mother, grandmother and great grandmother 
whose Yarzheit is 2 Tammuz.
Dedicated by, Ellen & Stanley Stone, 
Jake & Chaya, Micah, Adeline, Zack & Yael, Allie, 
Isaac, Ezra & Talia, Yoni & Cayley, Marc & Eliana, Adina, Gabi & Talia.
*********************************************************
*********************************************************
Dedicated in memory of Zvi ben Moishe Reinitiz z”l 
of Nasgykallo, Hungary, 
whose Yahrzeit is on Bet Tammuz.
*********************************************************

 

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

Transition to the Next Generation[1]

And Bnei Yisrael, the whole congregation, came into the desert of Tzin in the first month, and the people abode in Kadesh, and Miriam died there, and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation, and they gathered themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon. (Bamidbar 20:1-2)

The commentators[2] place this event in the fortieth year after the Exodus, and conclude that from this point onwards the Torah describes events involving the next generation (the children of those who left Egypt).

In the chapters that follow, the Torah records two complaints voiced by this generation, which had extraordinary consequences. The first concerns the lack of water and the subsequent events at Mei Meriva, as a result of which Moshe and Aharon lose their right to enter the land. The next complaint, leading to the creation of the copper serpent, brings about a turning point where, for the first time, we hear the people expressing explicit contrition.

While complaints are a recurring feature of the chronicle of Bnei Yisrael in the desert, modern commentators have focused on these lone descriptions of complaints by the next generation, with an attempt to characterize these people and the attitude of God and Moshe towards them.[3] In particular, they focus on the concluding complaint, which offers a key to analyzing the previous one – the episode of Mei Meriva:

And they journeyed from Mount Hor, but the way of the Reed Sea, to encompass the land of Edom, and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moshe: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, nor is there any water, and our soul loathes this miserable bread.” And the Lord sent venomous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, and many people of Israel died. Therefore, the people came to Moshe and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord, that He take away the serpents from us.” And Moshe prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moshe, “Make yourself a venomous serpent, and set it upon a pole, and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looks upon it, shall live.” And Moshe made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent that bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived. (Bamidbar 21:4-9)

And the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way

R. Elchanan Samet focuses on this “discouragement because of the way,” viewing it as the key to the behavior of the new generation. This is not a generation that rejects the promised land, looking back nostalgically on the food in Egypt, but rather a generation that has lost patience with wandering in the desert and is eager to live a natural life. The complaint here relates only to the lack of bread and water, against the backdrop of the psychological stress of the seemingly never-ending journey.

On this basis, R. Samet analyzes the story of Mei Meriva:

And Bnei Yisrael, the whole congregation, came into the desert of Tzin, in the first month, and the people abode in Kadesh, and Miriam died there, and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation, and they gathered themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon. And the people quarreled with Moshe, and spoke, saying, “Would that we had died when our brethren died before the Lord. And why have you brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt, to bring us in to this evil place? It is not a place of seed, of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates, nor is there any water to drink”… And the Lord appeared to Moshe, saying, “Take the staff, and gather the assembly together – you and Aharon, your brother – and speak to the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth its water, and you shall bring forth for them water out of the rock, so you shall give the congregation and their beasts to drink.” (Bamidbar 20:1-8)

They complain about a lack of “seed of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates,” hinting to the land of Canaan, which is characterized by these fruit. God understands their longing, and therefore displays patience and tolerance towards them, responding immediately with a solution (at least for the lack of water), with no punishment. Moshe and Aharon, in contrast, express impatience and disappointment with the repeated complaints, and therefore their fate is sealed: they will be replaced with new leadership.

But in truth, in light of what we have said, it is difficult to point to any special feature of the complaints of the new generation. We might propose that all the complaints of Bnei Yisrael in the desert reflect an impatience to reach the land. The fact that they bemoan the lack of bread and water is also not new. The lack of these staples is to be expected in the desert, and God’s response in similar situations has been mild and tolerant.[4]

Hear now, you rebels

R. Amnon Bazak adopts the opposite approach. He argues that Moshe and Aharon discern a dangerous way of thinking that pervades the younger generation, and they confront it, lest the situation deteriorate and the people end up following the example of their parents. Moshe and Aharon therefore choose to rebuke them with sharp words (“Hear now, you rebels”).

However, their stern approach fails to solve the problem, and complaints continue to appear. At this point, God Himself adopts a harsh response, setting venomous serpents among the people to act and achieve results where rebuke has failed, so that this generation will not repeat the mistakes of its predecessors.[5] Ultimately, God’s strategy has the desired effect, and the people, fearing the punishment that threatens them, have their faith in God restored, and they acknowledge their sin.

Although it is reasonable to assume that Moshe and Aharon are disappointed to be hearing the same complaints all over again, it is still difficult to conclude that they deliberately adopt a stricter, less tolerant approach, because we see that God does not punish the people for their complaint – as He does, in fact, in other instances.[6]

To sum up, then, there seems to be no special feature that distinguishes the complaints of the new generation from those of the previous one. This being the case, we must try to understand the transition from a different angle.

d. “And the Lord sent venomous serpents among the people

Setting serpents among the people is an unusual Divine reaction, but its significance may be inferred from the Torah itself. In Sefer Devarim, we find the following description of the desert:

Take care lest you forget the Lord your God and not keep His commandments and His judgments and His statutes, which I command you this day, lest when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and dwell in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart will be lifted up and you will forget the Lord your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, Who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, in which were venomous serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; Who brought forth water for you out of the rock of flint; Who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had not known, that He might afflict you and that He might prove you, to do good for you at your latter end, and you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand have made me this wealth.” (Devarim 8:11-17)

Venomous snakes are not supposed to be a rare sight in the desert. On the contrary – as described in the above verses – it is their absence that is truly astonishing. Thus, the appearance of the serpents not a wondrous sign, but rather an ordinary natural phenomenon. The moment God removes His miraculous protection, life in the desert is experienced in all its harsh reality.

Indeed, this is how R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch understands this episode:

“And God sent venomous serpents among the people”… What this means is not that God dispatched serpents, but rather that He released the serpents [that were already there] and did not hold them back… They had always been in the desert, but up until now God had held them back. Now, He let them go, and the desert serpents followed their natural tendencies and bit the people. Moshe describes thus the wilderness through which they passed in a miraculous manner, without being harmed: “… Who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, in which were venomous serpents, and scorpions, and drought…” (Devarim 8:15). Thus, we see that the venomous serpents are a natural element of the desert, just like drought. (R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch, Bamidbar 21:6)

Now let us consider the verse from Sefer Devarim in its broader context. The Torah warns the people lest they forget God’s kindness towards them and start imagining that their success is all due to their own efforts. As part of this warning, they are reminded of their survival in desert conditions, which was made possible by God’s help and protection. In view of this, the significance of the release of the serpents among the people is clear, as R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch goes on to explain:

The serpents’ bite had the sole purpose of letting the people see the dangers which dog a person’s steps when he goes through the wilderness, and that it was only the miraculous power of God which had hitherto kept them far from them, so far indeed that they did not even have an idea of their existence. One who had been bitten had only to fix the image of a serpent firmly in his mind so that he realizes that even when God’s gracious power will again keep the serpents at a distance, he will remember that the danger is still in existence, dangers that the special care of God daily and hourly allow us to escape quite unconsciously. (Bamidbar 20:8)

Seemingly, this message is especially important for the younger generation. On the one hand, these people did not leave Egypt; they did not experience the terrible oppression there themselves, and therefore they are less able to tolerate the hardships of the desert. On the other hand, the fact that they have lived their lives in better conditions might lead to a sense of arrogant pride, since they know of no other way of life. Therefore, on the eve of entering the promised land, the Torah sets down this truth so that they will appreciate their lives and view everything in the proper perspective.

e. “Who led you through the great and terrible wilderness

Let us have a closer look at the connection between these two textual units:

Then your heart will be lifted up and you will forget the Lord your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, Who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, in which were venomous serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; Who brought forth water for you out of the rock of flint; Who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had not known, that He might afflict you and that He might prove you, to do good for you at your latter end… (Devarim 8:14-16).

In order to prevent a sense of arrogance amongst the new generation, the Torah recalls the period of wandering in the desert. Careful study of the verses reveals that the Torah notes precisely those elements that are bound up with the complaints of this generation:

Devarim 8

Bamidbar 20-21

Who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, in which were venomous serpents, and scorpions

And the Lord sent venomous serpents among the people, and they bit the people

and drought, where there was no water; Who brought forth water for you out of the rock of flint

and speak to the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth its water, and you shall bring forth for them water out of the rock

Who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had not known

For there is no bread, nor is there any water, and our soul loathes this miserable bread

 

f. “…That He might afflict you and that He might prove you

To understand better the significance of this point, let us consider the broader context of this unit in Sefer Devarim:

All the commandments which I command you this day shall you observe to do, that you may live, and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the Lord swore to your fathers. And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God led you these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you, and to prove you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments, or not. And He humbled you and suffered you to hunger, and fed you with manna, which you had not known, nor had your fathers known; that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord does man live…. You shall also consider in your heart that, as a man chastens his son, so the Lord your God chastens you… For the Lord your God brings you into a good land, a land of water courses, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills; a land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey… and you shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.

Take care lest you forget the Lord your God and not keep His commandments and His judgments and His statutes, which I command you this day, lest when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and dwell in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart will be lifted up and you will forget the Lord your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, Who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, in which were venomous serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; Who brought forth water for you out of the rock of flint; Who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had not known, that He might afflict you and that He might prove you, to do good for you at your latter end, and you say in your heart, My power and the might of my hand have made me this wealth. But you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He Who gives you power to achieve wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day. (Devarim 8:1-18)

An overall view of this passage reveals several instances of apparent overlap or redundancy. Aside from the land and the eating of manna, which are mentioned twice,[7] the point of the trials and tribulations in the desert is presented in two different ways:

  • “to humble you, and to prove you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments, or not”
  • “that He might afflict you and that He might prove you, to do good for you at your latter end”

The first purpose sounds familiar, since it was mentioned already in connection with the manna:

And Bnei Yisrael said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” And the Lord said to Moshe, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a certain portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will follow My Torah or not.” (Shemot 16:3-4)

This being so, the first objective that appears in the passage in Sefer Devarim pertains to the trials of the generation of the desert and their complaints. The text in fact states this explicitly, in the first part of the passage cited above:

And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God led you these forty years in the wilderness… (Devarim 8:2).

In the second part of the passage in Devarim, no mention is made of the length of the period of wandering, since Moshe is talking at the end of the last year spent in the desert, and the text suffices with a summarized reference to the journey: “…Who led you through that great and terrible wilderness….” (v. 16). As noted, the second part of the passage belongs to the description of the events connected to the younger generation.

Based on the above, I wish to propose that the passage addresses two different periods in the history of Bnei Yisrael, with the trials facing the nation having a different purpose in each instance.

g. “To do good for you at your latter end

We understand that the journey through the desert had auxiliary objectives: it was meant to test the people before they arrived in the promised land. From the verses in Sefer Devarim we understand that for the generation that left Egypt and wandered in the wilderness, the test was real and difficult.[8] God wanted to chastise them as a father chastises his son, but the tests were real and aimed to prove either one conclusion or the other: “that I may test them, whether they will follow My Torah, or not,” and again, “whether you would keep His commandments, or not.”

The answer is provided by Bnei Yisrael themselves, who fail time and time again, and ultimately pay a heavy price:

How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, who murmur against Me? I have heard the murmurings of Bnei Yisrael, which they murmur against Me. Say to them: As I live, says the Lord, as you have spoken in My ears, so will I do to you: your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness, and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, who have murmured against Me, shall by no means come into the land… But your little ones, who, you said, should be a prey, them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which you have despised. But as for you, your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness. And you children shall wander in the wilderness forty years, and bear your backslidings, until your carcasses be consumed in the wilderness. (Bamidbar 14:27-33)

This harsh decree brings its own consolation. The same decree that precludes the parents’ entry into the land allows the children to enter. Moreover, not only will God permit them to enter, but He promises that they will do so – specifically because the parents involved the children in their complaint. Any future refusal to bring the new generation into the land will place in doubt all of God’s behavior towards Am Yisrael from the time of the Exodus until now.

Since the children’s generation is destined to live, their experiences in the desert cannot be identical to those of their parents, since they are now pursuing a one-way path. This would seem to be the real sense in which the new generation differs from the old one. The difference has nothing to do with their behavior (which, as noted, is characterized by similar complaints), but rather reflects God’s different plan for them.

This offers us a completely different perspective on the new generation. With the entry into the land hovering on the horizon, the events in the desert are collective experiences designed to create a collective consciousness and collective memory that will accompany this generation in its life in the land. Although this generation does not always cope well with its challenges in the desert, it is clear that God’s intentions in providing these challenges are quite different from the intention behind the tests faced by the previous generation.[9]

 

[1] See, for example, R. Elchanan Samet, “Parashat Chukat – Parashat Derakhim Be-Sefer Bamidbar,” Iyyunim Be-Parshiot Ha-Shavua (Miskal, 2009), esp. pp.223-227; R. Amnon Bazak, “Bnei Yisrael – Ha-Dor He-Chadash,” Torat Etzion, Bamidbar, pp. 189-194; and Nechama Leibowitz, “Nachash ha-Nechoshet,” Iyyunim Chadashim Be-Sefer Bamidbar, pp. 268-272.

[2]  Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, and Abravanel; see R. Samet’s article (above, n. 1).

[3]  I discussed one aspect of this question in my article, “Arba’im Shana Akut Be-Dor – Le-Pesher Telunot Bnei Yisrael Ba-Midbar,” Megadim 33, pp. 43-52. While the previous generation had complained regularly about Moshe, the next generation includes God in their complaints: “And the people spoke against God and against Moshe: Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” (Bamidbar 21:5). Rashi interprets this in a negative light, as a comparison between a slave and his Master. I proposed a different perspective, in view of the formulation of previous complaints. The people had been used to blaming Moshe and Aharon for whatever difficulties they faced in the desert; finally, they had internalized the fact of God’s guidance, and hence His inclusion now. Once this recognition was manifest and this specific complaint was dealt with, no further complaints were recorded. See also last week’s shiur.

[4] See Shemot 16. When Bnei Yisrael complain about a lack of bread, God fulfills their request. It is only when they demand meat that Moshe rebukes them. Similarly, in chapter 7, when they complain about water, God provides for them.

[5]  Against this background, R. Bazak explains God’s response in the form of serpents, which are a symbol familiar to the people from the period prior to the Exodus from Egypt, where its purpose was to instill faith in the hearts of those who beheld it:

And Moshe answered and said, “But behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you.’” And the Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” And he said, “A staff.” And He said, “Cast it on the ground.” And he cast it on the ground, and it turned into a serpent, and Moshe fled from it… And the Lord said to Moshe… “that they may believe that the Lord God of their fathers… has appeared to you.” (Shemot 4:2-5)

However, this argument is not convincing, since immediately thereafter God provides Moshe with further signs, in case the people will not recognize the first one (Shemot 4:8-9). Besides which, it is difficult to imagine that the people would immediately associate the venomous serpents with the sign that only their parents’ generation had been given in Egypt, and respond accordingly.

[6]  For instance, after the sin of the “complainers” (Bamidbar 11:1-3) and in response to the complaints following the punishment meted out to Korach and his company (Bamidbar 17:6-15).

[7] R. Elchanan Samet addresses the repeated attention to Eretz Yisrael in this passage in “Bein Midbar La-Nahar – Shivchah Ha-Kaful shel Ha-Aretz,” Iyyunim Be-Parashot ha-Shavua, first series, Ekev). See also R. Ezra Bick’s article about Bnei Yisrael in the desert (Torat Etzion, Bamidbar).

[8] Commenting on the verse, “And Moshe said to the people, ‘Fear not, for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before your faces, that you sin not’” (Shemot 20:17), Ramban discusses different ways of understanding the “test” as a reference to the giving of the Torah.

[9] It may be that they started to become aware of this when they saw the brass serpent, and that it was for this reason that they ceased complaining after that.