"The Spirit of the People Grew Impatient"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Adapted by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish



Our parasha mentions two complaints of Bnei Yisrael:


1.         "And Bnei Yisrael – all of the congregation – came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and the nation sojourned in Kadesh, and Miriam died there, and she was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation, and they gathered against Moshe and against Aharon.  And the people strove with Moshe, and spoke, saying: 'Would that we had perished when our brethren perished before the Lord!  And why have you brought God's gathering to this wilderness, to die there – we and our cattle?'" (Bamidbar 20:1-4)


2.         "And they journeyed from Hor Ha-har, via the Reed Sea, to circumvent the land of Edom, and the spirit of the people grew impatient with the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moshe: 'Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, nor any water, and our soul loathes this miserable bread.'" (21:4-5)


At first glance, these appear to be two similar stories about a lack of basic necessities during the journeys through the wilderness, leading the nation to grumble. It is precisely this similarity that makes God's sharply contrasting responses to these episodes so surprising. In the first story, God simply instructs Moshe to deal with the people's problem by bringing forth water from the rock. In response to the second complaint, however, God punishes the nation, sending the deadly serpents. How are we to explain this?


Perhaps the difference lies precisely in the fact that these two complaints follow one after the other. In other words, the difference in the reaction reflects the fact that in the first instance, God had already forgiven the nation.


Am Yisrael "tested" God in the wilderness "ten times already" (Bamidbar 14:22), to the point where Moshe later rebukes them with the words, "You have been rebels against God since I have known you" (Devarim 9:24). God did not punish the people the first time, nor the second time, but His responses grew gradually more exacting. The second complaint that appears in our parasha is the "last straw," as it were, and the people are then punished as they deserved to have been after the very first complaint.


Nevertheless, this explanation does not put our minds at rest. Does God not punish the nation "measure for measure"? Is such a harsh punishment really meted out after the second complaint only because God has "had enough," as it were? It seems that a closer look at the respective episodes reveals a fundamental difference between the second complaint and the other grumblings of Am Yisrael, and it is this that gives rise to God's differing responses.


The first complaint came in the wake of Miriam's death and the disappearance of the miraculous well of water that, while she was alive, had accompanied the nation in her merit. The nation now suddenly had no water to drink. Clearly, the concern for this most vital commodity – especially for a nation journeying through the wilderness – is quite understandable. Until now, God has taken care of all of the nation's needs in miraculous ways, and therefore the manner in which they approach Moshe and the way in which they voice their concern are certainly improper. Nevertheless, we understand the crisis that they experience when their reliable source of water suddenly disappears.


The second complaint is a different story. It arises from no sudden or critical lack. The Torah describes a very simple, human reason for this new criticism of God: "The soul of the people grew impatient with the way." Their complaint arises from impatience, from the absence of fortitude to continue with the journey. Although the people want to get to Eretz Yisrael, they feel that they lack the strength to endure the long and arduous journey that this entails. The commentaries try to offer more substantial reasons for their complaint (see Rashi ad loc.), but from the verses themselves it appears that more than anything else, they are simply "fed up." Their claims that "there is no bread, nor any water" are simply excuses; the crux of the problem is spiritual weariness, impatience, and lack of strength.


Unfortunately, the problem is all too familiar amongst Am Yisrael in our times, too. The secularism that arose in western Europe was a response – albeit a mistaken one – to genuine troubles and distress. The Gemara (Eruvin 65a) notes the difficulty of serving God during the course of the exile with all of its trials. Thus, the Gemara learns from the verse, "… and she who is drunk, but not from wine" (Yishayahu 51:21), that while in exile, Bnei Yisrael are compared to drunks who are exempt from punishment if they prayed without the proper concentration.


In our times, however, this is no longer the situation. The State of Israel certainly faces some very challenging problems, but the yoke of exile and its struggles have unquestionably been removed from our necks. The secularism that we encounter in our times – including the secular spirit that is becoming manifest among the religious public, too – arises from nothing more than spiritual weariness. It reflects a desire to do only that which is pleasant and convenient – even where this aspiration is not compatible with the rigorous demands of Torah, whether on the halakhic level or in terms of spiritual consciousness. It is a phenomenon that arises from a "now"-centered thinking, from an unwillingness to make sacrifices for the sake of the future.


As benei Torah, this cultural and spiritual situation should be a prime concern, since it presents a most dangerous threat to the fate of Am Yisrael for the generations to come.


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Chukat 5754 [1994].)