Overcoming the Divine Silence

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Overcoming the Divine Silence

By Rav Michael Hattin


Last week, we read Parashat Korach that detailed the aborted revolt against the leadership of Moshe and Aharon. That episode unfolded on the heels of a lengthy series of failures and setbacks that had plagued the people almost from the moment that they had journeyed forth from Mount Sinai in the direction of the Promised Land. The people's unwarranted bout of complaining (11:1-3) was followed by their insatiable appetite for meat (11:10, 31-35), and Moshe's leadership was sorely tested in the process (11:11-30). Next, Miriam and Aharon spoke ill of their humble brother and the prophetess was temporarily expelled from the camp (12:1-16). The devastating sin of the spies followed (Chapters 13-14), and after a fleeting interlude in which God extended to the people the assurance of a brighter future (Chapter 15), Korach and his cohorts then arose from their midst to destructively fan the flames of revolt. While throughout all of these episodes the people of Israel pressed forward geographically in their march through the wilderness, there was no sense of progress or of advancement. The dusty and desolate hills hemmed them in, the foreboding and unforgiving landscape consumed them, and in that windswept wasteland they found their end.

Parashat Chukat opens with the mysterious ritual of the Para Aduma, or Red Heifer (Chapter 19). According to the proscriptions of the Torah, one who has come in contact with a human corpse is deemed tameh, or ritually unfit to enter the precincts of the Mishkan or the Mikdash. In order to emerge from this state of tum'a, the said individual must first be sprinkled with the Mai Chatat, or Waters of Purification. After its slaughter outside of the camp and the ritual sprinkling of its blood, the body of the red heifer is set alight. As the bonfire burns, cedar wood, hyssop and crimson are added to the flames. The resulting ashes are collected and are then combined with spring water; a bundle of hyssop is dipped into the mixture and, with it, the individual is sprinkled on the third and seventh days. After immersion in a mikva at the conclusion of the rite, the person returns to a state of tahara or ritual fitness, and is again able to enter the Tabernacle or Temple area.

It is in the very next section that the Torah relates that "the entire congregation of Bnei Yisrael came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and encamped at Kadesh. There, Miriam died and was buried…" Bemidbar 20:1). As the commentaries point out, at this juncture the Torah abruptly begins to narrate events that took place at the CONCLUSION of the period of wilderness wandering, some thirty eight years after the events of the previous chapter! In fact, as the Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) indicates, the Torah records not a single event or prophecy that had occurred in the intervening decades, almost from the time that the people had expectantly marched forth from Sinai until their arrival in the wilderness of Tzin.


Thus, we know a lot about the period associated with the Exodus and the arrival and encampment at Sinai, we know a fair amount about the successful second march towards Canaan that provides the narratives for the latter part of Sefer Bemidbar, but we know almost next to nothing about the intervening period – from the debacle of the Spies until the people's arrival at the wilderness of Tzin – a span of almost four decades. The great majority of the Torah's narratives and commands, the numerous chapters that comprise four of the Five Books of Moses (excepting, of course, Sefer Bereishit), are thus properly compressed into the astonishing time frame of TWO YEARS: the year of the Exodus and the year of the Entry. The intervening period, during which a generation came of age, lived out its useful years and unceremoniously perished, is thus shrouded in utter gloom.

How appropriate, then, that the section concerning the red heifer serves as the transitional narrative, as the Torah seamlessly proceeds from the account of the generation of the Exodus to the story of their children, who now stand ready to enter the Land. As Rashi explains, the emphatic expression "the ENTIRE congregation of Bnei Yisrael came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month" implies that the congregation of which the Torah now speaks was whole and complete, for "the generation of the wilderness had perished, while this new generation had been separated for life" (commentary to 20:1). In other words, the rite of the red heifer, necessary to effect the change of state of one who had come in contact with the corpse, to allow reentry into the life-giving presence of God, is here presented as the linking passage between the generations. Those who had left Egypt, condemned to their sad fate in consequence of the sin of the spies, had passed on. Their children now stood ready to cast off the 'death' associated with their passing, solemnly preparing to perpetuate life in the new land that beckoned.


It is, however, astounding that the events of the entire lengthy period from the time of Korach's revolt until the arrival at Midbar Tzin some forty years later are passed over by the Torah in utter and complete silence. According to a Rabbinic interpretation of a passage in Sefer Devarim, this textual silence was matched by a pronounced lack of direct Divine communication as well.

The background to the Rabbis' comments is as follows: In Sefer Devarim, aged Moshe, his life ebbing away, recounts the history of Israel. He remembers well the sending of the Spies, the promise and the disappointment, and God's stern sentence against the people:

None of these men, this evil generation, will live to see the good land that I swore to their ancestors to give them…your young children, whom you said would be taken as spoil, the children who know not yet how to tell good from evil, they will enter it. I will give it to them and they will inherit it…(Devarim 1:35,39).

Moshe then recalls the journey from Kadesh Barne'a whence the Spies had been initially sent, to the brook of Zered at the gateway to Canaan from the east. A distance that could have easily been traversed in a period of days stretched out interminably to become almost forty years. Wistfully, Moshe remarks:

The days that transpired from the time that we journeyed forth from Kadesh Barne'a until we had traversed the Wadi Zered were thirty eight years, until the demise of all of that generation, the adult males of military age, from the midst of the camp, just as God had sworn to them. The hand of God was also against them to destroy them from the midst of the camp until their utter passing. So it was that after all of the men of war had died from the midst of the camp, that God spoke to me saying: "Today you pass by the border of Moav at Ar. You shall come near to Bnei Amon but you must neither harass them nor assail them, for I will not give you any of the land of Bnei Amon as your possession, for I have given it to the descendents of Lot…"(Devarim 2:14-19).

And commenting on the juxtaposition of Moshe's description of that generation's passing with the account of God's communication to him concerning the people's journey at the edge of the land of the Ammonites, the Rabbis declared:

(God told Moshe): Say to them words of rebuke! Namely that "it is only on your account that He speaks with me," for thus have we found that during all of the thirty eight years that the people of Israel were estranged (from God), He did not communicate with Moshe, as the verses state: "So it was that after all of the men of war had died from the midst of the camp, that God spoke to me saying…" (Sifra, Dibura Dindava Section 1:13).


In other words, the Rabbis understood that Moshe's joining together of the account of that generation's death with his report of God's words to him concerning Bnei Amon indicated that God spoke to him only after all of those who had gone forth from Egypt had already perished. It was as if, the Rabbis declared, God deigned to speak to Moshe only on account of the people of Israel: if they were distanced and estranged from Him, then Moshe could not be close. If they were doomed to die, then Moshe too had to experience their grief. Hence the implied rebuke to the people, for though they may have imagined that righteous Moshe's relationship with God was steadfast and secure, little did they realize that it was only on their account that the Deity communicated with him at all!

In a parallel passage from the Talmud Bavli Tractate Ta'anit 30b, Rabba bar bar Channa relates in the name of Rabbi Yochanan that the day of renewed communication became a joyous holiday in ancient Israel – the fifteenth of Av:

Said he: it was the day that those condemned to perish ceased dying, for the master has taught that as long as that generation of the wilderness had not died out, there was no Divine dialogue with Moshe, as the verse states: "So it was that after all of the men of war had died from the midst of the camp, that God spoke to me saying…" (This implies that only now) He spoke to me!

It is true that Rashi there attempts to mitigate the harsh implications of this tradition by remarking that God in fact did speak to Moshe during this period, but without the characteristic singular focus and affectionate tone. He places the emphasis upon the word "me": "So it was that after all of the men of war had died from the midst of the camp, that God spoke to ME saying…" This implies, Rashi remarks, that God may have in fact communicated to Moshe during all of those intervening years, but His words to him lacked the qualities of intimacy and immediacy, what the Torah elsewhere calls a "face to face" communication (see Bemidbar 12:6-8). But the fact remains that the text records very few interactions between the Deity and Moshe during this period.


Significantly, according to a Talmudic tradition preserved in Tractate Yevamot 72a, there were other striking deficiencies during these thirty eight years: while the Torah reports in Sefer Shemot (Chapter 12) that the people of Israel were circumcised on the eve of their departure from Egypt, and Sefer Yehoshua (Chapter 5) indicates that the generation that entered the land fulfilled the rite soon after they traversed the River Yarden, during the intervening four decades of wandering, Israel abrogated the command of circumcision!

Why weren't the people circumcised? It may be because they suffered weakness due to journeying, or it may be because the northern wind did not blow. Thus have we learned: "or all of the years that the people of Israel were in the wilderness, the northern wind did not blow on their account." Why not? It may be because the people were in a state of reproach, or it may be because it would have scattered the Clouds of Glory…

It is not within the scope of our textual investigation to ascertain the scientific basis of this curious tradition. For our purposes, what is significant is to recognize that by ascribing the negation of the rite of circumcision to the rigors of the wilderness wanderings or else to the absence of the "northern wind," the onus for the omission is clearly removed from the people of Israel, and seemingly placed on God. Since the fundamental objective of the wilderness experience was to nurture the people's recognition of their necessity to rely upon God, their travels were conditioned by inexplicable Divine fiat and by no other discernable criterion. When the Cloud of Glory unexpectedly lifted off of the Tabernacle, the people of Israel grudgingly followed, and where it just as abruptly came to rest, there they set up camp until the next round of journey (see Bemidbar 9:15-23). This inherent uncertainty and instability that characterized their nomadic lives therefore made the fulfillment of the commandment of circumcision impossible, lest it lead to endangering the well-being of the newborn children. Alternatively, according to the view that it was the absence of the curative northern wind that made circumcision hazardous, it was God Himself, alone marshaling the forces of nature and bending them to His will, who decided in accordance with His inscrutable wisdom to hold back the therapeutic effects of this directional breeze. Consequently, the people of Israel were denied the opportunity to perform an ancient command that they would have otherwise apparently fulfilled with fervor.

This mysterious "state of reproach" mentioned by Talmud Yevamot in connection with the cessation of the northern wind corresponds exactly to the withholding from Moshe of Divine communication that was mentioned by Talmud Ta'anit. Both traditions correspond to the associated omission from the text of any significant narrative from this lengthy period.


Earlier, we noted that as long as the people of Israel were in the wilderness, God addressed Moshe in a tone that lacked tenderness and warmth. Now, we have also learned that during this very same period, they did not observe the command of circumcision. What is most remarkable, though, is the realization that these are the very same thirty-eight years that the Torah highlights by its deafening silence. Recall that the vast majority of the Torah's narrative events and commands are associated with either the first year after the Exodus or the final year before the Entry. In other words, the intervening vacuum of thirty-eight years constitutes the futile and fruitless lifespan of a generation that was condemned to die, ultimately perishing in a bleak and austere wilderness that quite literally swallows them up without even a textual trace. And what is the singular event that triggers this tragic and fatal chain? It is the sending of the Spies!


In essence, then, we may follow the course of events as follows: when the people of Israel portentously turn their backs on the land of Canaan, notwithstanding God's longstanding oath to secure it for them, they suffer in turn His harsh reprimand. Of course, there is the EXPLICIT statement of His displeasure and disappointment: that generation will surely perish! But what is even more painful is the subtle but stark realization by the people that there will be no clemency for their indiscretion, no moderation of their sentence, and no hope for pardon. God's oath of a bountiful land will instead be fulfilled to their children, who will be nurtured on the steadfast trust that only the experience of the wilderness can provide.

In the meantime, then, God words to Moshe are curtailed, His expressions of affection and love now replaced by stony silence. Likewise, the 'northern wind' ceases to blow, its healing breezes desist and die away, and in their place uncomfortably hovers the stale and suffocating feeling of God's distance and utter remoteness. To their dismay, the people of Israel realize that what yesterday was palpably within reach is today unachievable. Turning to the sole remaining comfort of God's guiding laws, they soon become aware that one of the most solemn and meaningful of their national rituals can no longer be performed without great and intolerable danger: the command of circumcision. The mark that had set them apart on the eve of their national awakening as they prepared to leave Egypt, the ancient expression of their national identity and God's perpetual covenant, THE SIGN THAT HAD BEEN TRANSMITTED TO THEIR FOREFATHER AVRAHAM AS GOD LOVINGLY EXTENDED TO HIM THE ETERNAL PROMISE OF THE LAND OF CANAAN, was now, like the precious earth that beckoned sadly from beyond the sands of the Sinai, past their grasp forever.

While the narrow and formal mitzva act of circumcision clearly devolves upon individuals and is completely independent of any actual geographic link to Canaan, its ideal conceptual fulfillment nevertheless implies a national identity and its corollary of an autonomous existence in a homeland. Therefore, when the people of Israel readied themselves to leave Egypt by transcending their individuality to forge a national identity, it necessarily followed that they had to perform circumcision, although they had neglected the command for some time. With bodies marked with the seal of God's covenant, and minds seared with its eternal promise, they ventured forth to secure the land and the mission that He swore to their ancestor Avraham.

But when the Spies (and the people of Israel in turn) rejected that future by loudly and vociferously declining God's gift of Canaan, it necessarily followed that His denial of their entry into the land would be accompanied by the onset of circumstances that would render the command of circumcision incapable of being fulfilled. Could it be that the people angrily rebuffed the "land flowing with milk and honey," first promised to their forebear and sealed by solemn oath, but yet continue to observe the ancient rite of circumcision, a command that so fundamentally depends upon an awareness of their national mission and the organic and historic connection of that mission to the soil of Canaan?

God, in His mercy, spared them the unbearable pain of explicitly renouncing their offers of fulfillment. Instead, He precipitated conditions that would make circumcision impossible. Thus, the north wind ceased to blow, Moshe's prophecies were brusquely bestowed, and the people of Israel entered the gaping jaws of a wilderness that would swallow up any memory of their lives. The linkage of the events is anything but arbitrary, for all of them together delineate the people's anguished "state of reproach" and poignantly describe the distress of Israel's transitory estrangement both from God as well as from Canaan's fertile expanse. However, all hope was not lost, for the children of that generation would yet grow to maturity and merit to graciously accept the gift of the land.


As the people near the Promised Land, now skirting the territory of their long-lost kin, the Divine dialogue with Moshe is suddenly renewed. God reassuringly speaks to him and the people realize that the curse of the wilderness is finally lifting. This time, their march towards the land will be successful, and though they soon learn that beloved Moshe will remain behind, they are nevertheless consoled by God's renewed interest in their fate. In the end, able Yehoshua will take the place of his mentor, and Israel will cross over the Yarden and encamp at Gilgal. There, they will complete their journey by once again practicing the command of circumcision:

At that time, God said to Yehoshua: "make blades of flint and circumcise the people of Israel on a second occasion". Yehoshua made blades of flint and circumcised the people of Israel at the 'Hill of Foreskins.' This is the matter concerning the circumcision performed by Yehoshua. All of the people who had left Egypt, the males of military age, had perished in the wilderness on the journey after having left Egypt. All those who had left (Egypt) were circumcised, but all those who had been born in the wilderness while traveling, after the Exodus from Egypt, were not. For forty years the people of Israel trekked through the wilderness, until those adults of military age who had left Egypt and had not hearkened to God's voice perished. God had sworn to them that He would not show them the land that He had sworn to their ancestors to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. Their children who became established in their place were therefore circumcised by Yehoshua…God said: "on this day I have rolled off the shame of Egypt," therefore they called that place Gilgal until this very day (Yehoshua 5:2-9).

Shabbat Shalom