The desert is a magical place. Anyone who has spent a few days or weeks in the Judean desert or the Arava in the south of Israel, and has walked through the hills and valleys, craters, dry river beds and craggy cliffs, or has slept there under the stars, has experienced how feelings of limitlessness, isolation and deep introspection permeate the mind, take up residence in the heart and purge the soul of petty issues. Everything there is pared down to the essentials. We feel calmer, less perturbed and more able to evaluate the paths taken and not taken.
The desert is a reality with manifold symbolism in the Bible. You want to be alone? That’s what the desert is for. You want to commune with God? That too. You want to hide from the law? Why not. You want to rethink your life and your choices? Perfect place for that. You need a break from the hullabaloo of civilization? Other than a few prowling creatures, nothing will bother you there. You want to start over? Be away from all foreign influences? Bingo.
For the Israelites, the desert was the cauldron in which they were churned into a people with a character that, for the good and the bad, has remained remarkably constant ever since. It was where former slaves were turned into an independent people, albeit with certain flaws. For example, they always thought the ritualistic grass was greener anywhere other than where they were. Thus the gods and their practices were more to their liking (not necessarily better) than those imposed by their invisible but ever-present Lord and savior.
Later in Bamidbar, we will see how extended exposure to the deprivations of desert conditions also triggered grumbling, revolts and downright ingratitude. The benefit of being the desert, of course, was that these negative manifestations could be dealt with in private, away from the prying eyes of other nations.
As we enter the fourth book of the Torah, the first year out of Egypt has passed and the people are adjusting. The census reported in our parsha is intended to calculate how many people will actually be making the journey to the land of milk and honey. It is reasonable to ask whether they are actually ready to complete the trek to Canaan, after their redemption from slavery, the Torah-giving sound and light show at Mount Sinai, and the building of the Tabernacle.
In hindsight, we understand that the mental and emotional transition from slavery to freedom takes a lot of time. Two or three years were much too short a period for the re-education of Israel. 40 years in the desert should probably have been penciled in from the start. But that’s a discussion for another time.
What we see in the first two parshot of Bamidbar is the beginnings of mass regimentation. The twelve tribes were divided up into four camps, each with its place, each with its function. “Know your place and your task in society” is the message. Amalgamation into a cohesive national unit seems to be underway, thanks to the desert.
In a way, this period of corona-induced lockdown has been equated to being in a desert – isolated, disconnected (except in virtual terms) and deep in introspection. Whatsapp and the various social media have been transmitting messages that virtually promise we are going to come out of this siege as better people than we went in. If we don’t go bananas first.
The father gently telling a story to his child about how things changed for the good because of the crisis, pictures of nature coming back to itself in the city and in the wild, hallucinatory photos of usually backed-up highways as empty as a country lane. All of them are subtly telling us that we are going to come out of this “desert,” this isolation of the soul, as better people.
I like fairy tales. I love “The Princess Bride” but that doesn’t mean I expect my problems to be resolved as happily were those of Buttercup in the movie.
What we have to remember is that several layers of influence are at work. On the personal level, many parents found out how great their children really are, they actually had fun together locked up at home. On the social level, we realized how much we need other people, how much we miss interacting with them. We also realized the senselessness of spending hours every day in commuting to and from work. It frays our nerves, guzzles our money, creates animosity, reduces creativity.
All of these are personal influences we can control. Then there are the external socio-economic-political influences that are slowly regaining momentum. Did you notice how few advertisements appeared in the newspapers? It became clear for all to see that an economy can thrive only if we buy things we don’t need. And so the forces are already pushing and pulling us to get out and buy more, and also to reignite our socialization in the public domain, in restaurants, cafes, etc.
What this means is that our burgeoning sense of the beauty of life without pressure is already being challenged by the steamroll back into pre-crisis reality as fast as the forces that be can manage it.
What will we remember of this period? That there was a virus that threatened us but thank God killed much fewer than we feared, and put our lives on hold for a while. And we can’t quite remember what happened, but now, now, we are back in the saddle again, full speed ahead.
Is that what’s going to happen? Is that what we want?