I found myself pondering a thought this weekend while watching show on TV. Isn’t remarkable how far the characters on a show come since being first introduced to them? The show I was watching is only four seasons long, but the characters have gone from misguided, mentally unstable individuals who break out into song and dance to share their thoughts on everything, from moving to California to the consumption of pretzels to law school graduates, members in well established relationships, and even parents. And this happens with almost all shows we watch on TV. Though I haven’t watched the final season of Game of Thrones, anyone who follows any sort of news knows that the characters on the long running HBO show have come a long way since the first earie scene North of the wall. The same goes for our own lives. We watch those around grow into something different each day. I spent this past weekend watching as Levi transitioned from using diapers to attempting to make it to the toilet and sporting very cute little underpants. Time is an incredible teacher.
Time is the theme of this week’s parasha, Bamidbar. The Israelites are continuing their journey in the desert. Now, two years since the exodus from Egypt, Moses is instructed to take a census of the entire Israelite community. All males over twenty are counted with the exception Levites. After tabulating the number, and the number of first born amongst them, and then subtracting that from the total number of Levites, a redemption tax is determined. The tax is used to pay Aaron and his sons for the service to the sanctuary. Moses also lists and counts the Kohanites separately from the Levites since the Kohanites are responsible for lifting and carrying the sacred objects of the sanctuary.
As I read through this week’s parasha and looked ahead to the remainder of Numbers and Deuteronomy, I pondered a similar thought as I had this weekend. Why does so much of such importance in Jewish history happen in the desert (midbar)? Those who have traveled through or visited the Sinai Peninsula know it’s an arid and unfriendly landscape. With that in mind, why did the Israelites stay so long? Why did they not make b-line straight to the Promised Land? I found two fascinating historical perspectives. Israeli statesman Abba Eban suggests that the liberated Israelites were locked in the Sinai for strategic reasons. They intended to return to their ancestral home, but they were too few and incapable of taking on the Philistine or Canaanite armies which controlled the borders enroute the Promised Land. Eban explains that it took forty years of wandering before they were strong enough to reconquer their land.
In contrast, Nachman Ran sees more in the desert experience than just building strategic strength. The desert experience, says Ran, was a time of nation building and religious development. “To a people whose entire living generation has seen inky the level lands of Egypt, the Israelites march into this region of mountain magnificence, with its sharp and splintered peaks and profound valleys, must have been a perpetual source of astonishment and awe. No nobler school could have been conceived for training a nation of freeman or weaning a people from the grossness of idolatry to a sense of the grandeur and power of the God alike of Nature and Mind.”
For Ran, the midbar is a “school” where the Israelites mature out of slavery and idolatry and into a free, powerful people. Within its unique, barren, and dangerous environment they learn respect of the wonders of nature and importance of each person to the community. No longer slaves, they must now bear the burden of their survival. Their desert journey teaches them mutual dependence and loyalty to one another and to the ethical and ritual commandments that are meant to uplift life with sacred meanings. In Egypt they were condemned to live by the will of others. In the midbar they become free human beings responsible to God and to themselves for every choice they make.
We all grow out of our experiences, just like the Israelites and the characters that inhabit seven kingdoms of Westeros. Similar to Ran’s comments on the midbar being a school, our daily lives are a school where we learn daily, prepare for tests and build upon our character. The trials we face make us into stronger people. We all find the strength to learn the respect of the wonders of nature and importance of each person to the community. Only then are we prepared to live in the image of God.