“If Only We Had Died:” The Generation of the Desert and the Generation of the Conquest

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Jesse Adelman

The story of Mei Merivah in this week’s parashah has a set of powerful echos with the story of Marah in Shemot 15.  They are both stories of thirst, which is cured by miraculous intervention.  However, aside from this superficial similarity, there are a number of deeper resonances from which emerges, if not a clear message, then at least a series of questions which we should consider about how parents transmit values and behaviors to their children.

Three days of waterless wandering after safely crossing Yam Suf, the Israelites reach the Desert of Shur where they complain that the water is undrinkable. This is the first complaint that Moshe hears from the Israelites after leaving Egypt, at the beginning of their forty years of rootlessness. This is narrated immediately after we are told that the prophet Miriam lead the women of Israel in song and dance, in celebration of the redemption.  Forty years later, at the beginning of their journey from the desert into Canaan, Miriam dies, and once more, the Israelites lack fresh water, and complain to Moshe.  The tone of these complaints could not be more different.  In Shemot they ask,”מַה-נִּשְׁתֶּה. “ “What shall we drink?” (Ex. 15:24), . By contrast forty years later their children (and it must be their children, for as Rashi points out the punishment meted out to the generation of the spies has been completed, and they are once more on their way into Canaan), call out with a far less visceral complaint:

וְלוּ גָוַעְנוּ בִּגְוַע אַחֵינוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה.  ד וְלָמָה הֲבֵאתֶם אֶת-קְהַל יְהוָה, אֶל-הַמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה, לָמוּת שָׁם, אֲנַחְנוּ וּבְעִירֵנוּ.  ה וְלָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ, מִמִּצְרַיִם, לְהָבִיא אֹתָנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הָרָע הַזֶּה:  לֹא מְקוֹם זֶרַע, וּתְאֵנָה וְגֶפֶן וְרִמּוֹן, וּמַיִם אַיִן, לִשְׁתּוֹת.

‘Would that we had died when our brothers died before God.  Why did you bring the assembly of God to this desert to die there, us and our cattle?  Why did you raise us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil places, not a place of seed and dates and vines and pomegranates, and there is no water to drink. (Num. 20:3-5)

These incidents both take place at the beginning of a journey towards Canaan.  The first leaves from Yam Suf, secure in the knowledge that they are finally free from slavery in Egypt.  The second leaves from Kadesh Barnea’ forty years later, after their parents’ journey was cut short by their nostalgia for the land of their servitude, and fear of the land God promised them.  At the outside of the first journey the jubilation of the Exodus could not be sustained in the face of the privation of the desert, and the Israelites, after three days of thirst, made their need known in direct terms.  Their children, after 38 years encamped at Kadesh Barnea’, well fortified with food and water, could not last a day without crying out.  The contents of that cry were the same sentiments that halted their parents’ journey “לו מתנו” “Would that we had died…” (Num. 14:2).  The new generation seems not to have learned from their parents’ failures.

Unlike their parents’, this generation’s thirst was precipitated not by the joy of redemption, but by the death of the prophet who expressed that joy.  Rashi cites the Midrash that this was due to the closing of the wells, which had existed in Miriam’s merit. As a member of the generation who danced at the sea, and who sinned with the spies, Miriam was not to be allowed to enter the land, so she died as they ventured out.  Her brothers, it seems, were to be permitted entry to Canaan, until the wells dried up.  God, not pleased with how they handled the crisis, forbade them entry. With perhaps two exceptions, the generation raised in Egypt was not to be permitted entrance to the promised land.

The generation to enter the land was given a clean slate and yet, when they are confronted with the same challenge their parents faced when first leaving Egypt, it was an even greater failure for both the people and their leadership.  Instead of reclaiming their parents’ joy and relative fortitude after leaving Egypt, they seem to have learned nothing and set out with the same attitude that damned their parents.  Nevertheless, they inherit the land.   As I said at the outset, I do not believe there is any clear lesson to be learned from this.  Nevertheless, these echos leave us with something to consider.  Can a transformative, redemptive experience be sustained over time?  Can the values and attitudes we learn from such an experience be transmitted to a generation that did not live through it?  If not, how do you convert that experience into a lived reality that can be transmitted?  It seems that the generation of the Exodus did not fully succeed at these tasks, but the questions remain urgent for every new generation of parents.

Rabbi Jesse Abelman (SBM ’09) is a Doctoral Candidate at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.

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