If, during Shemot, the Book of Exodus, we were tempted to sugar-coat the behavior of our ancestors, exemplifying them as models of gratitude, patience and respect, we might want to reconsider now that we are midway through the Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. This is the month we read Shelach, Korach, Chukat and Balak, four Torah portions that illustrate their real temperament.
Page after page we learn how the Israelites, who were supposed to be relishing their newfound freedom, grumbled, kvetched and complained their way through the desert. Plotting and scheming, evading responsibility, and disobeying God so soon after their extraordinary experience of Sinai, they cause horrific plagues to come down upon them. Anxiety and fear hang over the people like a black cloud. Maybe Egypt wasn’t so bad after all.
Trudging through the wilderness for 40 years was a tedious affair. The path was dusty and the journey was long. Not knowing where they were going or how their needs would be met was unsettling. Our ancestors yearned for safety, simplicity and familiarity. They clung to memories of their lives in Egypt which were hard but predictable. Their experiences of oppression – the beatings, the humiliation and the forced servitude – became distant and foggy.
The Israelites had not yet loosened their spiritual and psychological shackles of servitude. They still acted like slaves. They still thought like slaves. The entire generation of freed slaves would have to die out before the next generation could enter the Promised Land.
Like children they misbehaved, spread fear, lashed out and rebelled. At times they showed outright disdain for their redemption. What happened to the tremendous courage they had mustered when they crossed through the sea?
Perhaps the Torah presents us with two models of courage. The first is the courage of Shemot, of leaving Egypt in haste and crossing the treacherous sea. These are the fantastic, rare occasions when we are called upon to do something momentous, to risk our lives or our livelihood for some greater purpose. The Israelites in a burst of adrenaline plunged forward into the unknown because they believed that they could truly experience liberation.
The second is the courage of Bamidbar, of walking the long journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. This is the courage of everyday life, of those countless, small decisions that make us who we are. The Israelites fail to act courageously on their journey, because they have not yet learned how to break their shackles of spiritual and psychological servitude.
Often we recognize and celebrate the grand opportunities to make life-changing decisions. They rightly deserve our attention and admiration. Yet they present themselves so seldom, and sustaining the energy required to take bold, brave steps on a regular basis is perhaps impossible.
We tend to dismiss the less dramatic models of courage because they are harder to notice and seem more mundane. We consider them less impressive. But opportunities to act with integrity and compassion, to move beyond our everyday fears and do what is right, are all around us.
Like our ancestors we can grumble, kvetch, or complain, or we can express gratitude for the blessings in our lives. We can shirk responsibility or hold ourselves accountable for our actions. We can dwell in the past or gaze out to the future with a sense of awe. We can rebel for our own individualistic gain or we can build community and care of others. We can remain silent or we can speak up when we see wrongdoing.
The Torah demonstrates that both models are necessary. While the Israelites acted courageously at the sea, their resolve frequently waned on their long journey. Only the generation who had not experienced slavery would be able to enter the Promised Land. Perhaps, by learning the second model of everyday courage, they were able to embrace gratitude, responsibility, awe, compassion, and righteousness.
Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison.