The fourth book of the Torah, Bemidbar, best translated as “in the wilderness,” is a relatively detailed account of the variegated experiences of the Israelites over the thirty-eight-year period beginning after the exodus from Egypt and continuing until they are about to enter the Promised Land. While some material in this text is legal, the book is mainly narrative.
Moses Maimonides, in his influential philosophical work Guide of the Perplexed (Book III, Chapter 24) considers why it was necessary for God to lead the Israelites along a convoluted and trying path through the wilderness. He writes that God first accustomed the Israelites to misery in the desert in order to make their well-being greater once they entered into the Promised Land. Maimonides goes on to explain that “passing from weariness to rest is more pleasant than to be constantly at rest. And it is known that but for their misery and weariness in the desert, they would not have been able to conquer the land and to fight.” In other words, the tribulations of the wilderness helped temper and strengthen Israelite character and will, preparing them to invade and occupy the land of Israel.
Contemporary Israeli scholar Rabbi Yehudah Shaviv raises a substantive question. Assuming that Maimonides is correct in his understanding of human character, that is, human beings are steeled by adversity, wasn’t it enough that the Israelites suffered through 210 years of slavery? Why would there be a need for thirty-eight years of challenges when more than five times as many years of slavery preceded the exodus?
Perhaps the solution lies in the fact that for two years after the exodus the Israelites enjoyed a respite. They were rescued form Pharaoh’s pursuing forces, they received the Torah, they constructed the Tabernacle, and they camped under God’s protection. Life, as they say, was good. A relaxed climate of self-satisfaction had taken hold. Were the Israelites to march directly to the land of Israel they would have been overconfident. They needed a psychological reset. The years in the wilderness served that purpose.
Sometimes we wonder why life thrusts upon manifold challenges. It would be wise to then reflect on the fact that perhaps we are being conditioned for success.