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September 4, 2015 | 20th Elul 5775

Israel in the Torah V

Galilee Diary #269
January 22, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

Now, whereas the people who came out of Egypt were circumcised, none of the people born after the exodus, during the desert wanderings, had been circumcised.

-Joshua 5:5

If we didn’t have this description of the mass circumcision of all the males born in the desert, we might have thought that throughout the forty years of wandering, we were obeying the laws we had received in the early months. It is surprising to discover that those forty years were a kind of limbo. Just a few verses later, we read of the first observance of Passover since the exodus. In other words, all of the laws we learned in the desert were only preparation for our anticipated settled life in our promised homeland.

Of course, it is important to remember that the forty years of wandering were not part of the original plan. We were only in our second year out of Egypt when Moses sent the twelve spies into Canaan (Numbers chapter 13-14); the intention was for them to scout out the land in preparation for our conquest of it. However, because their panicked response to the military challenge indicated a lack of faith, God decreed forty years of wandering, to allow for the rise of a new generation. Thus, if all had gone according to plan, we would have gotten the Torah, as a sort of “user manual” for the land, and within a matter of months would have started our new life in our new home according to these instructions. The unexpected delay led to the somewhat strange situation wherein we got the instructions a whole generation before we would be able to implement them.

This means that the people standing at Mt. Sinai would not have the opportunity to live the Torah – and the people charged with living it received it only second-hand, as a tradition passed down from their parents. But note: the tradition must have been only verbal, as the laws themselves were not applied, Passover, and presumably other holidays, were not observed; everything was predicated on the phrase that recurs over and over – “When the Lord your God brings you into the land…” (for example, Deut. 6:10, 7:1, 18:9…). Certainly a formidable educational challenge! This situation is reminiscent of certain other educational realities: think about taking driver’s education in the classroom and then being handed a license and the keys, never having driven a real car; think about completing medical school and being handed a license and a scalpel, never having participated in a real operation; think about reading the entire instruction manual to your new digital camera, then putting it away and leaving for your around- the-world trip with a camera you had never before held. We lacked practical experience of creating a state, of living in a land, of dealing with neighbors, of operating a system of courts. We may have memorized all the instructions, but we had only fantasized about real life in a sovereign state lived according to the Torah.

And sure enough, the reality was a lot more complicated than we had imagined. Time and again we got it wrong. Read the Prophets section of the Bible, from Joshua through Malachi, and you find that from the day we crossed the Jordan we struggled with a constant tension between the ideal demands of the Torah and the messy reality of national life. In the desert, I suppose, we were undistracted, and could listen with concentration and learn the material. In the land, we faced temptations, distractions, conflicting forces, and compromises, and sometimes forgot what what we had learned. Maybe the result wasn’t necessarily the best of all possible societies; jugglingthe meeting of God’s law, our imperfection, and the reality of power wasn’t easy, and twice we dropped the balls and lost the land. It is exciting – and daunting – to realize that now we seem to have been given another chance.

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