Sunday, May 31, 2009

Honeymoon in the Wilderness

In my last post, I showed how the rabbinical commentary turns the date that Moses took the census of the Jews in the wilderness into an expression of God's love for the Jewish people. If you thought that was an amazing piece of interpretation, look at this: just the fact that God was providing for them in the wilderness was another love token.

"In the ordinary course of events," the commentators say, "when a mortal king goes forth into the wilderness":

  • Does he provide the same comfort to his courtiers that they would enjoy back in the palace? No. But God gave the Jews comfortable resting places even in the desert!
  • Does he provide tutors to their children? No. But God gave the Jews three teachers, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. (Yes the text mentions all three!)
  • Does he pay the salaries of these officials? No: usually the people have to provide, through taxes. But in this case, it was the other way around. Moses provided manna for the people; Aaron brought the pillars of cloud that shielded them from the desert sun; and Miriam brought a well of water that traveled with the Jews wherever they went!
In the rabbinic mind, the forty years in the wilderness were the honeymoon trip for the marriage of God and the Jewish people. They picture God fondly recalling to the Jews lechtech acharai ba-midbar beeretz lo zeruah, "you followed Me in the desert, in a land that was not sown." They pass over the hardships, the constant whining and complaining, and what they remember is the great love God showed in helping the Jews survive for a whole generation before they entered the Promised Land.

So, just the fact that the census took place in the wilderness becomes the occasion for this romantic nostalgia. Boring parts of Torah? Hardly!

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