BaMidbar: The Wilderness of Sinai |Tough Love?

Wilderness of Sinai

The Wilderness of Sinai is the place G-d chooses to communicate to the Israelites through Moses. It is where G-d reveals Torah and repeatedly offers saving grace. For the Israelites, the wilderness is a place of wandering. It is also a place of terror and near despair.

Why does G-d choose the wilderness to speak directly to Moses and through him, to G-d’s people? And why was the wilderness the scene of revelation and saving acts? Finally, why did this story unfold in a place of hardship and terror for the Israelites?

And why did the journey extend to 40 years? According to Google Maps, the walk from Cairo to Jerusalem is about 452 miles or 148 hours on foot. With twelve-hour days, 148 hours would make the journeying time almost two weeks (12.3 days). Remember, there were kids on the journey and sheep. People needed time to set up and take down camps and find and prepare food. Oh, and yes, a desert tabernacle.

Let’s quadruple the time, giving just three hours a day to walking. Still a little under two months. Let’s add on the same number of days for stopping altogether, not traveling. Four months. The Israelites could have paused for many more months near oases and still not approached anywhere near 40 years.

Not was it possible, but why was it necessary?

Perhaps Moses was an experienced survivalist, although the Torah never describes him in that way. It’s unlikely though that many in the ragtag crowd following him were. Numbers 1:46 tells us there were 603,550 adult men, which suggests a total population of around 2.4 million. 2.4 million people including children wandering through and living off the wilderness and what they were able to bring with them when they left Egypt in great haste.

My question isn’t, “Was it possible?” It is “Why was it necessary to the story that the march from slavery to freedom happen in a brutal wilderness?” In these vast numbers? Why did a harsh desert become the place where the Israelites developed a relationship with G-d?

The Wilderness of Sinai

I always like to think of a wilderness as a place where everything is simplified, where non-essentials are stripped away. I heard the desert described once as a “mikveh,” a place of cleansing — perhaps washing away non-essentials. But I think it goes deeper than that. I suspect it’s more like tough love than gentle persuasion toward mindfulness. There is no arguing with intense temperatures, thirst, and starvation.

Read this description from Dr. Claude Mariottini of what the Israelites faced as they wandered for forty years through the Wilderness of Sinai (more available by clicking on the link):

“In the Sinai Peninsula, most of the land is devoid of water and vegetation, except in oases and wadis, dry river beds that may be filled with water during the winter flood. The wilderness was a harsh and inhospitable area.

“Because of the nature of the terrain, the Israelites faced many problems posed by life in the wilderness. They experienced {a} lack of food and water, diseases, earthquakes, snakes, scorpions, and attacks from enemy tribes. The Bible indicates that the situation in the wilderness of Sinai was inhospitable…”

…הַמּוֹלִ֨יכְךָ֜ בַּמִּדְבָּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּדֹ֣ל וְהַנּוֹרָ֗א נָחָ֤שׁ ׀ שָׂרָף֙ וְעַקְרָ֔ב וְצִמָּא֖וֹן אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֵֽין־מָ֑יִם…

…Who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph*seraph Cf. Isa. 14.29; 30.6. Others “fiery”; exact meaning of Heb. saraph uncertain. Cf. Num. 21.6–8. serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it…

Deut. 8:15

Even in slavery, the Israelites accessed a richer diet than in the desert:

וַיֹּאמְר֨וּ אֲלֵהֶ֜ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל מִֽי־יִתֵּ֨ן מוּתֵ֤נוּ בְיַד־יְהֹוָה֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בְּשִׁבְתֵּ֙נוּ֙ עַל־סִ֣יר הַבָּשָׂ֔ר בְּאׇכְלֵ֥נוּ לֶ֖חֶם לָשֹׂ֑בַע כִּֽי־הוֹצֵאתֶ֤ם אֹתָ֙נוּ֙ אֶל־הַמִּדְבָּ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה לְהָמִ֛ית אֶת־כׇּל־הַקָּהָ֥ל הַזֶּ֖ה בָּרָעָֽב׃ {ס}        

The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of יהוה in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.”

Ex. 16:3

Existential terror

As Dr. Mariottini points out, the Israelites were poorly prepared for a forty-year journey in this environment. And it’s not quite “a band of brothers” fighting for their survival. It’s 2.4 million people, a “mixed multitude” or ragtag group (וְגַם־עֵ֥רֶב רַ֖ב עָלָ֣ה אִתָּ֑ם), many vulnerable. They travel through dry, rocky, unforgiving terrain where they were as likely to be prey as predators. The Golden Calf episode fully reveals their state of existential terror as they experience abandonment in a hostile environment. It is revealed once again when the spies return from Canaan:

וַיִּלֹּ֙נוּ֙ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן כֹּ֖ל בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַֽיֹּאמְר֨וּ אֲלֵהֶ֜ם כׇּל־הָעֵדָ֗ה לוּ־מַ֙תְנוּ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם א֛וֹ בַּמִּדְבָּ֥ר הַזֶּ֖ה לוּ־מָֽתְנוּ׃

All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. “If only we had died in the land of Egypt,” the whole community shouted at them, “or if only we might die in this wilderness!”

וְלָמָ֣ה יְ֠הֹוָ֠ה מֵבִ֨יא אֹתָ֜נוּ אֶל־הָאָ֤רֶץ הַזֹּאת֙ לִנְפֹּ֣ל בַּחֶ֔רֶב נָשֵׁ֥ינוּ וְטַפֵּ֖נוּ יִהְי֣וּ לָבַ֑ז הֲל֧וֹא ט֦וֹב לָ֖נוּ שׁ֥וּב מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃

“Why is יהוה taking us to that land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!”

וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֑יו נִתְּנָ֥ה רֹ֖אשׁ וְנָשׁ֥וּבָה מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃

And they said to one another, “Let us head back to Egypt.”

Num. 14:2-4

Imagining ourselves into the wilderness story

The Wilderness of Sinai is a harsh environment. It is not like the Garden of Eden, a place of compassionate abundance. The wilderness is also a long way from the place in which most of us live today. Not many of us have had to find a way to survive in a desert wilderness. We haven’t had to survive in a place where food and water and the building blocks of shelter are scarce. We shop at grocery stores rather than compete for scarce resources. Imagine the intense competition for basic resources with 2.4 million people in a desert trying to stay alive.

Is there a way to imagine ourselves into the reality of that wilderness experience and see it as much an expression of love and compassion as the story of Creation, chapters 1-3 of Genesis?

The wilderness as predator

Human beings have basic survival needs that they share with all other animals. As National Geographic points out, “Animals need food, shelter from weather and predators, water, and a place to raise young.”

Abraham Maslow in a 1943 article in Psychological Review titled “A Theory of Human Motivation” points to a hierarchy of needs among humans. Survival is the most basic. Without fulfilling basic survival needs, there is no possibility of moving up the hierarchy to love and to self-transcendence. Survival is primary.

Yet according to the Torah story, G-d brings a crowd into the wilderness, millions. The demands on the minimalist eco-system that is the desert would have been unsupportable. If the Israelites can’t even provide for their basic survival needs, how can they ever move beyond them to the future promised them? The wilderness preys on their future.

Yet G-d brings the Israelites to this place and keeps them in it for 40 years.

The wilderness as saving vessel

As in the Noah’s Ark story, the saving vessel is an environment calculated to challenge the possibility of cohabitation. It brings those within it to the breaking point and beyond in their relationships.

Also like the Noah’s Ark story, the Israelites don’t know where they are going. As slaves for four hundred years, they had no opportunity to see the Land promised to their ancestors. All this massive ragtag group knows is the overcrowded, fragile environment in which they find themselves, an environment that is both no-place and every-place. This present terrifying, harsh, and impossibly crowded moment is all they have.

Yes, G-d is there with the Israelites, offering moments of grace, providing water and manna — but utter dependence on another being for survival can also be terrifying.

The stage is set for complete social and spiritual catastrophe. How do we find love and compassion in this story of the post-slavery wandering in the wilderness?

Wilderness training

When he was thirteen, my younger son went to Outward Bound for three weeks of wilderness experience. For most of the time, he was with a group of others his age led by experienced guides. For two days he was solo.

I could tell from his letters that he was unhappy when he started out, away from home with people he didn’t know, carrying a 50-pound pack through the mountains, learning survival skills, and confronting physical challenges like rappelling off the walls of glaciers.

By the time he completed the trip, though, he appreciated the experience as the most powerful and transformative of his life to that point. As he approaches 5 decades of life, I believe he still looks back on it as one of a handful of life-changing experiences.

Outward Bound describes its programs this way: “Outward Bound programs inspire young people and adults to stretch beyond their perceived abilities. In balancing responsibility, risk and reward, and in learning to act boldly, deliberately, and with compassion, students experience profound growth and lasting change.” 

Here’s how they explain the choice of place for their expeditions:

  • Outdoor environment simplifies as it inspires.
  • Novel physical settings require new ways of thinking and acting.
  • Physical remoteness emphasizes interdependence and self-reliance.
  • Unplugging from connected lifestyles promotes focus and perspective.

In the group framework, “Students learn to trust each other’s strengths and support each other’s needs.” Their solo time teaches self-reliance and “creates space for mindful learning from experience.”

The wilderness experience simultaneously teaches interdependence and self-reliance, learning to depend on and cooperate with a group of diverse people while challenging one’s own abilities and gaining confidence and realistic self-appreciation.

Finally, Outward Bound says of its program, “These skills are infinitely transferable and support students’ successes at work and school, and in their careers, families and communities.”

Building community: self-reliance and caring cooperation

The Israelites weren’t preparing for success in their careers but rather for the often harsh conditions of life. And not just any life. Their lives would be dedicated to building a nation with a social culture that emphasized compassionate, righteous, moral behavior, a representation in the human realm of the love and compassion of creation. The moral fabric of the universe demanded a corresponding moral response from human beings who benefitted from it.

The Israelites had to forge more than a cohesive nation that would stand up to assault from starvation and thirst, diseases, earthquakes, snakes, scorpions, and enemy tribes. They had to build a moral nation, a compassionate nation, one based on trust and faith in a loving G-d. Their task required strength and persistence even in the face of unimaginable tragedy.

Each individual needed to test his or her own strength, endurance, and resourcefulness — but at the same time learn to depend on those around them. They had to learn of and appreciate each other’s unique skills and abilities…discover their own and others’ vulnerabilities, and support the vulnerable. Their ability to survive and grow beyond survival to create a righteous society depended on caring cooperation in the group as a whole. And this lesson in compassionate cooperation had to hold up under the most trying circumstances when resources were few and human beings most likely to focus only on their own selfish survival needs.

In evolutionary terms, “‘Selfish’ genes that don’t cooperate don’t survive. A more fitting view is that there are evolutionary limits to selfishness. Nature dooms all that damages what it depends on.

Beyond community: an interdependent web of being

There was another aspect to the Israelites’ wilderness experience beyond developing self-reliance and building compassionate, cooperative relationships with their fellow travelers. The Israelite universe was built on relationships within and between three realms: humanity, the rest of creation, and Transcendence. It was an interdependent universe, a web of being and meaning.

Just as the Israelites had to learn in an environmental pressure cooker to develop and maintain righteous relationships with their neighbors, other living beings, and their habitat, they had to learn how to relate to Transcendence, to their G-d.

Any relationship requires reciprocal trust. The wilderness environment presented many challenges to trust on all sides. The story tells us how many times the Israelites disappointed G-d. There were also inevitable moments when hope failed and disabling despair threatened to set in for the Israelites. In those moments, they had to dig deep and find faith that G-d created everything with a plan and the plan included them.

Trust, the foundation of faith

Trust isn’t inevitable or easy, even in a G-d who sends an earthly leader to save the people from grinding slavery and who provides food, water, and shelter at critical moments during their journey. What if G-d isn’t there the next time? Disappears? Perhaps trust comes when there is nothing else you can do but trust.

When you weep as you bury the precious seed, you have to find it in yourself to trust you will rejoice as you come home carrying your sheaves (from Shir Ha-Ma’alot, prelude to Birkat Ha-Mazon). If you rely on the harvest to survive, you must trust in outcomes or you’ll never put that precious seed into the ground.

It turns out that nurturing and maintaining faith and hope even in the most challenging and terrifying circumstances is essential for self-preservation. Faith insists there is a bigger picture even when you don’t know what it is.

Faith in the infinite tensile strength of interdependence

So back to the starting questions: Why was it necessary to the story that the march from slavery to freedom happen in a brutal wilderness? And in these vast numbers? How is the Israelites’ wilderness experience an expression of G-d’s love and compassion?

The wilderness experience was necessary to strip away everything non-essential, leaving the Israelites to experience the infinite tensile strength of the interdependent relationships that would move them forward into the future. Their numbers in the midst of scarcity intensified the pressure on forging those relationships and maintaining them for the sake of group survival.

G-d’s saving grace in the midst of impossibility provided the Israelites repeated opportunities to learn trust and build faith. They would need it as they moved forward. Yet faith often faltered, and G-d had to repeat the lesson.

The Wilderness and the Garden…the same precious gift

The Garden and the Wilderness are the same gift: an opportunity to experience the interconnection of all being, between human beings, the rest of creation, and divinity. Interconnection persists even in the most challenging circumstances. It just is. And when the Israelites experienced it in moments of full awareness in the wilderness, perhaps they saw themselves as an inextricable and eternal part of a grand and beautiful design. And perhaps that gave them courage to move forward.

Ideas? Would like to hear from you!