Matot-Masei: How did the Desert Generation Cope?

How did they cope for a lifetime, knowing that they were doomed to wander without a destination?

Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer,

Rabbi Prof. Dov Fisch
Rabbi Prof. Dov Fisch
צילום: PR

In this week’s double Torah portion, we read in Chapter 33 of Bamidbar (Numbers) about the many dozens of stopping points where the Jews encamped in the Sinai Desert during our People’s four decades’ sojourn from Egypt to Israel.  Verses read like these: “And they journeyed from Elim and pitched by the Red Sea. And they journeyed from the Red Sea and pitched in the wilderness of Siyn. And they journeyed from the wilderness of Siyn and pitched in Dophkah. And they journeyed from Dophkah and pitched in Alush.” 

There were some 42 separate encampment stations as the Jews encircled the Desert for forty years.  This seemingly endless “going around in circles” was punishment for the “night of weeping” on the Ninth Day of Av when the Ten Evil Spies (Numbers 13-14) delivered a horrifying report to the Nation that slandered the Promised Land and discouraged so many from proceeding forward to enter Israel. 

On that night of wrongful tears, the Jews were only days away from arriving at the final destination: The Land of Israel.  We were so close that the advance scouting party — the Spies — were able to reach Israel, scout the necessary territory, and return back in only 40 days. Thus, we were barely days away.  However, as the men of fighting age bitterly cried in remorse, refusing to move ahead, they brought on themselves the curse that they instead would have to peregrinate forty years through the Wilderness: one year of wandering for each day of the Spies’ disastrous mission.

And so they did.  Only approximately sixteen months out of Egypt, they wandered nearly 39 more years.  In time, the Desert Generation’s men died out, and their children entered instead.  Beyond that, for the duration of recorded time, that calendar day — the Ninth of Av, the night of the bitter but pointless weeping — would be pocked with Jewish tragedy.  It would be on the Ninth of Av that the Babylonians would destroy our First Temple in Jerusalem.  On that selfsame day, more than six centuries later, the Romans would destroy our Second Bet HaMikdash (Temple) that would be built on the same Mount Zion.  The Ninth of Av was the day in 135 C.E. that Betar, the final fortress that experienced the last breath of Jewish independence in Israel before the long Exile, fell to Rome.  More than a thousand years later, the Ninth of Av in 1492 would be the day that Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand would implement the expulsion of Sephardic Jewry from Spain.

As this bitter future Jewish history first was unfolding in the Sinai Desert on that fateful Ninth of Av — in Hebrew, literally, Tisha B’Av — the immediate nightmare that the Israelites had to grasp was that, only days away from reaching their intended final destination, the Promised Land, they now were doomed to forty years’ wandering, with no destination ever to be attained in their lifetimes.  They simply would follow the pillar of fire by night and the clouds of glory by day, embarking when the pillar and clouds embarked, stopping when those signals halted.  They had no clear indication as to where their next station would be.  All they knew was that, from now on, they just would have to follow the pillar and the cloud — for the rest of their lives.

I ask myself:  How did they do that?  How did they cope for a lifetime, knowing that they were doomed to wander without a destination?  How does one wake up in the morning, put on tefillin and tallit, recite prayers, get the children clothed and groomed and fed, and proceed through a day when one knows that he is “going nowhere” and will be “going nowhere” tomorrow and the day after that, for the rest of his life?  How does she do that and “hold it together”?

In many ways, we all encounter those periods.  Sometimes in our younger years, sometimes during mid-life, sometimes in the “golden years.”  A sense that we are going nowhere, just waking in the morning, getting the routine done, and then alternating one foot in front of the other, with no destination ahead. 

Maybe we are locked in a family that is going nowhere.  A job that is going nowhere.  A marriage going nowhere.  A dead-end career.  Whereas we once enjoyed so much hope and anticipation, maybe in childhood, perhaps at the heady and exciting beginning of a marriage that later proved a huge mistake or a job that began with so much promise but that turned into “the job from hell,” something went wrong.  And now we are stuck.  Going in circles. The destination long out of sight.  Just peregrinating through life.  And now another year has passed.  And now a decade.

Yet we see from this week’s Torah portion that the Desert Generation, once having come to terms with their new fate, learned to see that their lives still had a meaningful destination.  If they personally would not be entering the Promised Land, they knew their children would take up the journey, as a relay teammate seizes the precious baton, and would reach the finish line, the destination, the Land of Israel.  As long as the Desert Generation did not drop the baton and focused their lives effectively on preparing their children to carry on, to learn and live by the Torah, to be Jews to the fullest, their lives still had enormous purpose.  They still had a mission.

All our lives have purpose.  We all are on a mission.  People locked in disastrous marriages attest that there is life after divorce.  People stuck in bad careers can re-train.  People in the most horrific of jobs can quit and walk, or — better yet — consult an employment law attorney when they have been abused by petty tyrants of inconsequential standing.  A great new day awaits.

To make personal leaps takes courage.  To go back to school for a new career at age 35 or 40 is a challenge.  To leave a miserable job that pays well takes bravery.  To take risks is scary, but that is the stuff from which heroes are made.  Each and every one of us has that hero within us, waiting to emerge.  But only we can free that spirit to surge from within.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and at UCI School of Law and a member of the national executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County.  His writings appear at