All the News That’s Fit to Print (Ideas #110)


Imagine asking someone to give an “elevator summary” of Israeli history and having him respond that along the way, we built the national water carrier bringing water from the Sea of Galilee to much of the rest of the country and that later on Ben Gurion died. He would then bid you farewell.

It may sound preposterous, but it is not that far from a similar summary of the forty years that the Jews spent in the desert. At the beginning of Parashat Masei, we read of the various encampments of the Jews from the time they leave Egypt until they arrive at the borders of Eretz Yisrael. Granted, this list of place names is itself the true focus of this section. Nonetheless, once we read about the crossing of the ReedSea in Parashat Masei, the Torah intersperses this list of encampments with only two events – the lack of water encountered at Refidim and the death of Aharon.

It is not at all clear why the Torah only mentions these events; there are many others that it would make sense to mention as well. Furthermore, if the Torah is going to be as terse as possible in the enumeration of historical events along the way, are there not more significant events, such as the receiving of the Torah, which should take precedence?

In the context of Sefer Bemidbar, which deals a great deal with the limitations of the Jewish people in the desert, it could be that the listing of the encampments is meant to give us greater insight into their failings. As a result, it gives us a description of the trek markedly from their perspective. Perhaps the Torah wants to temper our judgment of this generation by trying to make us realize just how different their perspective of things might have been.

Thousands of years later, when we judge the giving of the Torah to be more important than the lack of water or the death of Aharon, we are basing ourselves on a rich historical and theological perspective that the Jews going through it did not have. This is not to claim that we are smarter or more religious. I doubt the former and am convinced of the incorrectness of the latter. It just means we have more information at our disposal with which to coherently evaluate the relative importance of the various events that transpired in the journey through the desert. Indeed, in the Jews’ collective consciousness, the shock of not having water to drink and then being relieved by a Divinely revealed source of water may have been a most critical event. It introduced them to a new type of existence that was neither the regular and mundane religious life that they had known for most of their time in Egypt nor was it the fire-and-brimstone existence they had encountered during the plagues and the splitting of the sea. (It actually was a stronger version of the previous episode at Marah where they encountered bitter water. There too, their shock seems to be reflected in the unusual description of the next encampment at Elam that we read was a place of wells.) From now on, they would see God challenging them with events that were a bit less clear – and yet always being there to see them through.

Likewise, the death of Aharon may have been even more traumatic to the Jews than the decree that they would die in the desert. That Aharon and not Moshe was the people’s leader is quite clear in rabbinic tradition and certainly has a strong basis in the Biblical text itself. Losing Aharon was akin to losing their whole existence. It was on him whom they depended for this radical new enterprise upon which they had embarked. They were literally left like orphans in the desert. On an emotional level, then, this could well have had a more profound effect than the aforementioned decree.

Whether this is actually what happened or not, the very plausibility of the scenario just outlined should make us wonder. It should also make us question our own perspective on contemporary events.

Indeed, what would we say are the watershed events of recent Jewish history? We might be certain that the pullout from Gush Katif and the Second Lebanon War would rank at the top of the roster. Indeed, these events have truly shaped the attitudes of many Jews about how they should seek to influence the course of future Israeli policy and even how they feel about the Zionist project altogether. But if we had prophets today, are we so sure that this would be their focus? Not having prophecy, I can’t be sure, but my gut tells me otherwise.

Perhaps we would find out that the quiet establishment of religious Zionist yeshivot in towns that had been formerly abandoned to the secular, such at Tel Aviv, Eilat and Carmiel, would be that seminal event that we had so easily overlooked. Or maybe, a contemporary equivalent of Yermiyahu would tell us that over the last few decades we have all accepted a lifestyle of cell phones, malls and surrogate performance of mitzvot that is bankrupt at its very core. Again, not being a prophet, my list of what a prophet might say is not really the point. What is the point is the need to second-guess ourselves. We are too easily convinced of the centrality of our communities’ agendas. 

A newspaper editor is required to decide what stories are most important and thus deserving of inclusion – and what to leave out. There, the editor’s warped perspective often speaks for itself. What is so transparent to us about some newspapers, however, needs to be brought home.

Had we lived in the desert, we certainly could have reflected on the sui generis significance of the receiving of the Torah. But we would have had to second-guess the prevalent perception of the community suggested earlier. And that is something that far too few of us are prepared to do.