When the Torah reports (Numbers 20:1) that the Israelites arrived at the Wilderness of Zin “on the first new moon” it could only be referring to the first month of the last year of the journey after the scouts had returned and the Israelites were planning their entry into the Land of Canaan. It is at this point that Miriam dies, the Israelites complain about a lack of water, Moses and Aaron are punished for their sin (Numbers 20:7-13), Aaron dies (vv. 20-29), the battle for the land begins (Numbers 21:1-3), snakes plague the Israelites (Numbers 21:14) and the actual conquest of Transjordan begins (Numbers 21:21-35). Reflecting on the flurry of activity that now transpires, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra notes that this last year of the forty-year journey – like the first year – was replete with events of consequence. He states that there is no mention in the Torah of any “event or prophecy” except during the first and last years!
The first reaction to Ibn Ezra’s observation is surprise. It would seem that statistically speaking there must have been something of note that occurred in the intervening thirty-eight years of travel. But Deuteronomy 2:14 reports that the Israelites encamped in Kadesh Barnea for thirty-eight years, presumably without incident. So as surprising as it might seem, the narrative seems to justify Ibn Ezra’s observation. It also leads to several insights.
Life is not always eventful, nor should it be. Sometimes there can be periods when the answer to the question ‘What’s new?’ is ‘Nothing.’ And this is not a bad thing. Sometimes routine and ordinary is a welcome respite from the drama that comes with crises. Further, episodes of significance often distract and even deter from developing routines that are necessary stabilizers and anchors in life.
The mundane is as much a test of character as is the extraordinary. To be sure, having to deal with calamities, emergencies, and catastrophes stretches and develops coping skills. But finding ways to occupy time and energy when all is normal is equally testing. Busy people can thrive in activity, but place them in a quiet and restful setting they are unable to adjust. It is equally as challenging to learn how to embrace tranquility as it is to manage stress. (And for some, tranquility is stressful!)
It may not seem this way but the middle years of the Israelites journey, those thirty-eight years of quiet – were just as much a character builder as the crises they had to face.