“In the plains of Moav, by the Jordan at Jericho”

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“In the plains of Moav, by the Jordan at Jericho”

(Numbers 36:13)

Tammuz 25, 5780/July 17, 2020

The double Torah portion of Matot-Massei brings us to the end of the book of Numbers, which brings us to the end of Israel’s forty year stay in the wilderness. The time has come to enter the land and begin the process of fulfilling G-d’s promise to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov: “For all the land that you see I will give to you and to your seed to eternity.” (Genesis 13:15) The children of Israel that are poised to enter into the land of Israel are not, of course, the same children of Israel that left Egypt. A generation has passed and all those who walked out of Egypt on the night of the first Passover in history have died: specifically, the men of that generation who succumbed to the despair sowed by the spies who, upon returning from Canaan, poured icy cold water upon the hopes and dreams of the desert Israelites. The women of the generation of the exodus, of whom we are told did not fall prey to the evil report of the spies, widows all by now, merited to enter the land with their generations offspring.

By Number’s end, Moshe remains the last Israelite male of his generation that will not be entering into the promised land. He has already been informed by G-d that his end is nigh. Moshe doesn’t wish to linger and delay Israel’s entry into the land, but between last minute instructions from G-d and last minute issues and requests raised by this bold younger generation, he is kept quite busy up to his final breath. He is commanded by G-d to lead Israel in a war of vengeance against the Midianites whose daughters enticed and caused the moral collapse of Israel, sinking into the depths of depravity and idolatry before being snapped out of it by Pinchas’ act of zealotry. This war of annihilation was readily accomplished by the young Israelites. The same indomitable youth that so frightfully fell victim to the Midianite enticements were able to quickly pick themselves back up and eliminate their tormentors. Soon after their victory they are immediately preoccupied with the issues of dividing the spoils of war, with issues of dividing and settling the land, whether west or east of the Jordan River, and with preparing themselves for the warfare that awaits them in conquering the land.

The difference between this generation and the generation of Israelites that left Egypt is like night and day. The generation of the desert, (the generation of the exodus), known also as the generation of knowledge, is unique in the annals of Israel. They weer delivered by G-d from Egypt via a series of incontrovertible miracles, and were fed, sheltered and clothed for forty years in the desert by the loving hand of G-d. They crossed the Sea of Reeds and received Torah at Mount Sinai. With one heart they built for G-d the Tabernacle, a place for G-d to rest His presence among His people. The generation of the desert existed with one foot on the desert sands and the other foot in heaven. Their ups and downs, their unparalleled achievements and the unfathomable depths into which they stumbled can only be understood in this context. Suspended, as it were, between heaven and earth, their fear of entering into the land of Canaan and firmly planting both feet on the holy but profoundly earthy soil of Israel can be readily understood and even sympathized with. Their fate to die in the desert, while presented as a divine punishment for their sudden cold feet, was, in fact, a reluctant recognition by G-d that, for all their greatness, they just didn’t have it in them to enter and inherit the land, to retire the miracles that sustained them day after day, and to take up the plow and the sword necessary to build their lives in the land.

Not so, the younger generation. They are tired of the miracles. We witnessed this when they complained of thirst at Kadesh. Moshe misunderstood this and called them “rebels.” (Numbers 20:10) He didn’t grasp that they no longer wanted to be dependent upon miraculous springs or water bursting from a rock. They were already pining for the rivers and natural springs of the land that awaited them. When they protested the “rotten bread” (ibid 21:5) they were being fed every day, they weren’t acting as spoiled children. They were announcing that they yearned to be responsible for putting their own bread on their tables. They were ready to take up G-d’s promise – to fulfill their destiny as the generation of conquest. Even their greatest folly, that of consorting with the daughters of Midian must be understood in this light: they were young and full of energy and desire. If not directed properly their youthful energy would lead then astray. It always does. By this point it is clear. Every additional day spent outside of the land of Israel presents a potential pitfall for Israel. The moment has arrived. Crossing the Jordan and entering the land can no longer wait.

The book of Deuteronomy, which we will begin reading next week, teaches us that they did, indeed, need to wait for precisely thirty seven days. That’s how long it took for Moshe to complete his final address to Israel before ascending Mount Nevo and departing from his beloved people. This was an exception. Destiny does not make a habit of making exceptions like this. Destiny awaits us, but it doesn’t wait for us. We need to be ever ready to take up the plow and sword, if need be, and take our destiny into our own hands. This was true of the children born in the desert and this is true for us today.

***

Tune in to this week’s Temple Talk, as Yitzchak Reuven reflects on the peril of lingering outside the land of Israel, the last minute preparations in the book of Numbers before entering the land, and on focusing on the Holy Temple and getting ready to rebuild!

As we read the final chapters of the book of Numbers, the children of Israel are itching to enter the land and start their lives as responsible adults in the land G-d promised them. In the meantime Moshe has some last minute business to complete before parting ways with his beloved people. Today as we focus on the Holy Temple during the three weeks leading up to the ninth of Av, we face the same danger of backsliding if we are not moving forward. Like Israel perched on the edge of the land, we too want in: into the rebuilt Holy Temple!

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