Shabbat Mattot-Mas’ei 5776

Several weeks ago, we learned that as a result of Het Hameraglim, the sin of the scouts, the generation that left Egypt would not live to enter the Promised Land. It would be easy to get the impression that they were doomed to wander in circles and expire, not only in the present but for all time. We would only remember them as the ones who lacked faith and wasted their golden opportunity to see total redemption.
But it seems that in every generation, someone arose to rehabilitate dor hamidbar, the wilderness generation. For example, the rabbis of the Mishnah, nearly 2,000 years ago, debated whether or not these dead Israelites deserved a share in the World to Come. How is that even an open question? Medieval commentaries also saw the merit of this generation in the otherwise tiresome list of stations recorded in the second of this week’s portions, Mas’ei. And last century, the great Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik took a renewed interest in them as well.
As Avraham Feder writes in his Torah Through a Zionist Vision: “Maurice Samuel’s translation of Bialik’s epic poem Metei Midbar presents the original stubborn stiff-necked generation who were condemned to death in the desert lying petrified in a secret nook somewhere in the Sinai Peninsula:
‘Strong are their faces and burnished and darkened to bronze are their eyelids,
Targets to arrows of sunlight and rocks to the fury of tempests.
Hard are their foreheads and grim and changeless upturned to the heavens.
Cast as lava upthrown from volcanoes and hardened their breasts are.
Lifted like anvils of iron that wait for the blow of the hammer,
Yet though the hammer of time beats long and unceasing upon them
Like to the stone that enfolds it the strength of their hearts sleep forever.'” (p. 444)
Why would Bialik, and others who came before him, want to romanticize such a motley crew of non-believers? And what positive lesson can we learn from their spin tactics? We’ll talk about this on Shabbat morning as we conclude Sefer Bemidbar, the fourth book of the Torah.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise