THE Israelites were condemned to wander 40 years in the desert. Did they?
Following the failure of the spies to instill confidence in the free Israelite slaves that they could conquer the Land of Israel, G-d said, in effect: Free slaves cannot become free men.
They will have to die out.
It will take 40 years.
Which means: The stopping points of the freed slaves in the desert recall some awful developments, such as the places where the Israelites lost faith that they could conquer the land of Canaan.
At the journey’s end, how much of it should be recalled?
Should the places of failure be mentioned?
The truth is, most people revise their life story as they go along. Points of conflict or failure are forgotten, intentionally written out, dishonestly revised or simply not talked about.
“Revisionist history” is not just a historian’s or a politician’s enterprise. It is the occupation of many, perhaps most, people.
At the end of the Israelite journey in the desert, all of the encampments are recalled. Not one is omitted.
In fact, some of the encampments along the wanderings are mentioned for the first time only in the historical review.
No revisionist history.
THERE were 42 encampments during the 40 years in the desert. The first 14 occurred before the mission of the spies. The last eight took place during the 40th year, after the death of Aaron the High Priest, brother of Moses. So, during the “40 years of wandering,” which actually were 38 years, there were 20 journeys, less than one per year.
There was also backtracking. The Israelites backtracked seven times to bury Aaron in the designated place. All told, then, there were 49 stopping points.
The author of the commentary Sefat Emet considers each of the individual desert treks to be a stage of ascent from the 49th, next-to-last level of impurity to which the slaves in Egypt had sunk.
Traditionally, there are 50 levels of impurity, and if one reaches the 50th (bottom) level, one is incurable.
The Israelites were almost there. But with the exodus they turned around and began to ascend — 49 times. They conquered one level of impurity after the other.
Note: To reach the number 49, Sefat Emet is compelled to include the seven times that the Israelites backtracked.
A life story — be it of a nation or an individual — has to include all the steps. That inclusion — of the good, bad and ugly — does not necessarily add up to a negative picture.
The Israelites’ seven steps in reverse were part of the 49 steps of national ascent. Similarly, mistakes I have made are part of my life story, and may have actually been necessary for me to advance my life, or even to turn it around. Again, in viewing the Israelite nation at the end of its desert journey as having risen beyond all 49 levels of impurity, the backward steps and the encampments at times of failure are included in the count.
Y. Nachshoni summarizes, “At the end of one’s spiritual climb, a Jew must remember all that has happened to him since the start.”
PROBABLY the occasion in which this stricture is observed purely in the breach is the funeral.
As the old Yiddish saying goes, “All brides are beautiful, all dead were pious.”
To paint a person only by his good points is to deprive that person of the struggles he underwent, the challenges he overcome, the victories that did not come easy, the heroism he displayed.
To be perfect from beginning to end, head to toe, is not a compliment, because it cannot be true.
By recalling every encampment of the Israelite nation after it left Egypt, including those encampments when the Israelites rebelled, complained or lost faith is to paint a realistic picture.
Precisely on that score, it is an admirable picture, one to be inspired by.
Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News