The Book of Numbers begins with the appearance of order and stability. A tribal census is recorded, and an arrangement of the order of the march toward the promised land is established. The opening chapters of Numbers strive to assert that a new nation can be created with the same precision with which the portable sanctuary was constructed in the Book of Exodus, and with the same assurance of order and structure as the priestly prerogatives and prescriptions delineated in Leviticus.
But the overture to the unrest that will permeate the narratives of Numbers soon appears in the peculiar ritual of sotah, the suspected adulteress (Numbers 5). The placement of this material suggests the theme of unfaithfulness, which will recur throughout Numbers as the Israelites are repeatedly depicted as straying from their covenant with God. Disruption of the nascent community continues with the unrest generated by Miriam and Aaron against their brother Moses (Numbers 12).
But it is the wide-scale communal rebellion recorded in this week’s portion that explodes the hopes for a stable evolution of the Exodus generation into an orderly and regimented nation. The delegation of spies sent to scout the Promised Land returns with a dispiriting majority report that sets off a wave of despair and panic among the people. Despite the efforts of Caleb and Joshua to assert the opposite, the people believe themselves doomed to fall before the inhabitants of the land.
As a consequence of their faithlessness, the Exodus generation is doomed to die in the desert. Their hopes of reaching the Promised Land are ended. Upon hearing this decree through Moses, the people swing to the other extreme and mount a hopeless attempt to invade the Land anyway, only to be beaten back and humiliated.
The Israelites ought to have been an orderly nation of tribal balance, religious devotion, and administrative order. What they were, in reality, at least by the testimony of the Torah writers, is a fractious amalgamation of competing tribal claims, religious infidelity, and managerial chaos. The Israelites ought to be well on their way to the Promised Land; instead they find themselves destined to wander in the wilderness until a new generation can come of age.
The dance between the theoretical stability and practical disruption of the ancient Israelite community illustrates the constant tension between “ought” and “is.” In capturing the inevitable realities of this transitional period, the Torah presents a microcosm of a series of larger issues that permeate the Jewish religious perspective.
The “ought” of the concept of a messianic era, for example, is in tension with the “is” of the world as we know it. The “ought” of covenantal fidelity is in tension with the “is” of irregular patterns of Jewish observance. The “ought” of peace and harmony is in tension with the “is” of strife and dissonance.If there is a common core to our failure to reach the “ought” of life, it perhaps lies in the limiting tendency to think in terms of the moment instead of with a longer perspective. The Torah seems to suggest that despite the best intentions and strategies, what at our best we imagine becoming is always in tension with what we are able actually to accomplish.
If the Israelites had paused to take in the two reports of the spies — the majority as well as the minority — and agreed to go home and think about things overnight before making a decision, the Exodus generation might have reached the Promised Land after all.