If You Aren’t Moving Forward, You’re Falling Back

And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month; and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miryam died there, and was buried there.  (Sefer BeMidbar 20:1)

1.  Speaking with silence

Parshat Chukat discusses events that occurred at the end of Bnai Yisrael’s sojourn in the wilderness.  The above passage introduces this discussion.  A period of thirty-eight years passed between the events last described in the Torah and those described in our parasha.  The events that took place during those thirty-eight years are not at all discussed by the Torah.

Sometimes, silence is itself a form of communication and speaks more eloquently than words.  This may be one of those incidents.  In order to understand the meaning of this silence, we must return to the incident of the spies and its consequences.

The nation departed from Sinai and traveled toward the promised land.  Before confronting the nations of Cana’an, Bnai Yisrael sent a group of spies into the land.  They reported that the land was indeed fertile.  However, they also described the strength of the nations occupying the land and expressed their fears.  Their report evoked panic among the people and they refused to proceed forward.  Among the people a movement arose to abandon the march to the promised land and to return to the Land of Egypt.

Hashem threatened to destroy the nation but Moshe pleaded on the people’s behalf.  He succeeded in saving them from immediate destruction but Hashem condemned that generation to wander in the wilderness for another thirty-eight years.  That generation would expire in the wilderness and never see the Land of Cana’an.  Instead, the march to Cana’an would be resumed by their children.  This next generation would realize the promise that had been made to their patriarchs.  They would take possession of the Land of Cana’an.

The people heard the decree and recognized that they had been undermined by their fears.  They recovered their courage and they understood that because of their fears they had forsaken the wonderful blessing of the Land of Israel.  They declared their intention to bravely proceed into the land and conquer it.

Moshe warned the people that their opportunity had passed.  They must now accept Hashem’s decree and not proceed.  An attempt to now capture the land would not be supported by Hashem.  The nations of Cana’an would beat them back.  But the people were stubborn and refused to accept Hashem’s decree. They marched forward.  As Moshe warned, they were overwhelmed by the occupants of the land and brutally repelled.

Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When you come into the land of your habitations, which I give unto you, and will make an offering by fire unto Hashem, a burnt-offering, or a sacrifice, in fulfillment of a vow clearly uttered, or as a freewill-offering, or in your appointed seasons, to make a sweet savor unto Hashem, of the herd, or of the flock;  then he who brings his offering unto Hashem shall bring a meal-offering of a tenth part of an ephah of fine flour mingled with the fourth part of a hin of oil; and wine for the drink-offering, the fourth part of a hin, shall you prepare with the burnt-offering or for the sacrifice, for each lamb.  (Sefer BeMidbar 15:2-5)

And you returned (repented[1]) and wept before Hashem; but Hashem did not hearken to your voice, nor gave ear unto you.  (Sefer Devarim 1:45) 

2.  A message of hope in the incident of the spies

At this point, the Torah’s account of the events ends.  The impression created by the narrative is of tragedy and disaster.  The generation was condemned to wander through a desolate and barren wilderness.  It would be unable to regain the opportunity to seize the blessing that had been forsaken in fear.  However, this impression of unmitigated disaster and tragedy is not completely justified.  In fact, in two respects this impression must be amended.

First, in the immediate aftermath of the incident of the spies, Moshe was directed to communicate to Bnai Yisrael laws that would become effective with the nation’s entry into the Land of Israel.  These laws included a general requirement to accompany sacrifices with wine libations, and the mitzvah of challah.  This mitzvah requires that when a person creates a dough of requisite size a portion be separated and given as a gift to the kohanim – the priests.

Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra comments that these laws were taught to the people at this time to provide reassurance.  They were devastated by the realization that they would not achieve the dream they had anticipated.  They would never escape the wilderness.  They would wander until they died.  They needed a source of hope.  Somehow, the dream had to be kept alive.  These laws communicated to the people that they would expire in the wilderness but the dream would survive them.  Their children would achieve the dream denied to their own generation.[2]  In other words, immediately after the incident of the spies, the nation received a message of consolation from Hashem.

Second, in Moshe’s review of the incident of the spies in Sefer Devarim he adds a detail that is not included in the first account of the incident in Sefer BeMidbar.  He explains that after their defeat by the nations of Cana’an the people repented[3] and cried over their sin.  In other words, although belated, they recognized that they had sinned and undertook to repent.  Out of tragedy, some good emerged.  The nation recognized its mistake and embarked on a path of change and growth.

But did the nation succeed in reinventing itself? Did Hashem’s message of consolation encourage the people to continue to strive for the realization of the precious dream and to labor to make Bnai Yisrael more worthy of its realization?

And the people strove with Moshe, and spoke, saying: Would that we had perished when our brethren perished before Hashem! And why have you brought the assembly of Hashem into this wilderness, to die there, we and our cattle?  And why have you made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? It is not a place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink.  (Sefer BeMidbar 20:3-5)

3.  The true tragedy of the generation of the wilderness

There are two powerful indications that they did not succeed in converting the realization of their sin into a catalyst for change; their initial repentance was not internalized and was not developed into an ongoing process of spiritual growth.

The first indication is that they did not secure Hashem’s forgiveness.  Maimonides explains that negative decrees by Hashem are not absolute.  Repentance can secure salvation from any punishment.[4]  The fact that the generation did expire in the wilderness and did not enter the Land of Israel suggests that their repentance did not proceed beyond the powerful but passing recognition of failure in the aftermath of their defeat.

The second indication is suggested by two incidents in Parshat Chukat.  As explained above, the parasha describes events that took place thirty-eight years after the incident of the spies. This is the story of the new generation – the generation destined to finally realize the dream.

However, this new generation, in some important respects, is not very different from its predecessor.  The above passages describe the nation complaining to Moshe over absence of a water supply.  They suggest that Moshe has failed them and not fulfilled the promise to bring them to a rich and fertile land.  In sentiment and in phrasing, their complaints mirror those of two of the most wicked individuals of the prior generation – Datan and Aviram.

Later, the people bemoan the austerity of their diet composed primarily of the manna.  The very complaints that their parents had expressed thirty-eight years ago, this generation renewed.

Both of these incidents suggest that the thirty-eight years in the wilderness did not produce spiritual growth.  If their parents had repented and reinvented themselves spiritually, then their children would have learned from them.  They would be the product of their parents’ enlightened outlook.  They would not return to and reassert the very complaints that obsessed their parents.

In short, the generation of the wilderness achieved its highest level of self awareness after the sin of the spies.  But that self awareness represented the pinnacle of their personal development.  From that height the generation did not advance.  Instead, the moment of realization passed and, with time, that generation resumed its familiar mode of thought.  It passed its attitudes on to the next generation.

Then we turned, and took our journey into the wilderness by the way to the Reed Sea, as Hashem spoke unto me; and we compassed Mount Seir many days. (Sefer Devarim 2:1)

4.  Movement without progress 

In his final address to Bnai Yisrael, Moshe describes these thirty-eight years as a period during which the nation circumnavigated Mount Seir.  Commenting on Moshe’s words, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l suggests that this description communicates more than the route traveled by the nation.  It communicates a message of lost and wasted time – circular motion without forward progress.[5]  The above discussion suggests that Moshe’s description also communicates the spiritual character of those years.  Despite a promising beginning, nothing positive occurred.  At the end of thirty-eight years a new generation took the place of a prior generation plagued by many of the same shortcomings and troubled by the same doubts.

Why did Hashem’s reassurance of the inevitability of the nation’s destiny not inspire the generation?  Why did the initial repentance not function as a catalyst for meaningful spiritual growth?

The apparent lesson is that meaningful spiritual advancement is not the result of a sudden realization or epiphany.  Instead, it requires sustained effort and a plan of action.  The generation of the wilderness did achieve a moment of clarity.  At that moment, the members of that generation recognized that they had committed a terrible sin and thereby, condemned themselves to a terrible fate.  However, that recognition – although vivid and intense – did not have a lasting effect.  In fact, even that lucid realization was forgotten with time.

Spiritual growth occurs through sustained effort.  The generation of the wilderness did not translate its clear vision into this sustained effort.  Consequently, the vision had no long term impact.

5.  A contemporary parallel

A contemporary phenomenon will help us better understand the experience of the generation of the wilderness.  It is common for graduates of yeshiva high schools to spend the year following high school graduation in Israel.  Many of these students spend the year in a Torah learning program.  Many undergo remarkable spiritual growth during this year.   Upon return to the United States these students enroll in colleges and universities.  They recognize that the campus environment will present spiritual challenges.  They feel prepared to confront these challenges and are confident that they will remain devoted to their spiritual values.

Too often these students do not succeed in remaining true to these values.  They experience a rapid process of spiritual deterioration that strips them of the values embraced while in Israel. Often, by the time these students complete their degree, they have abandoned their commitment to spiritual values and observance.

The experience of these young people demonstrates that spiritual values are rarely stagnant.  In order to retain one’s commitment to these values one must actually invest in developing and strengthening them.  Without an investment in spiritual growth, spiritual decline is almost inevitable.

6.  Move forward or invite defeat

The reasons for this phenomenon are twofold.  First, our cultural and social milieu is antagonistic to spiritual values.  In order to resist the pressures of this environment, we must positively commit to growing spiritually.  If we do not dedicate ourselves to growth and make the corresponding investment of time and energy, we will be overcome by our surroundings and adopt the values promoted by our environment.

Second, we are all complex.  The human personality includes both a need for spiritual fulfillment and a strongly established material orientation.  Our spiritual vision and commitment competes with and is opposed by our natural material perspective.

Consequently, a person who wishes to have a meaningful spiritual life is like a swimmer who is attempting to proceed upstream against the current.  The swimmer must labor to advance just to remain in the same place.  This is also true of a spiritually committed person.   Because of the environmental influences and the complexity of our own personalities we must strive to advance our spiritual agenda if we are to not compromise or abandon our spiritual values.

Young people entering college campuses spiritually inspired often imagine that the experiences from which they drew inspiration and their existing commitment to spiritual values will sustain them throughout their college experience.  Their error is that past experiences and existing values are inadequate to meet this challenge.  An ongoing commitment to growth and a corresponding investment of time and energy are the only way to persevere.  When one is not advancing spiritually, one is falling back.

In short, the experience of the generation of the wilderness beckons us to learn from their failure.  It implores us to not take for granted our spiritual values but to invest in their advancement.  If we do not move forward, we fall back.



[1] Rav Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel (Malbim), HaTorah VeHaMitzvah – Commentary on Sefer Devarim, 1:45.

[2] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 15:2.

[3] Translation of Malbim.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Introduction.

[5] Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Recorded Lecture on Parshat Chukat.