Sermon: The Generation of the Wilderness – After the Referendum

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 25 June 2016

“None of those who have seen my Presence, and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness… none shall see the land that I promised to their ancestors” (Numbers 14:22)

Such is the punishment decreed upon the whole camp of the Israelites in the portion from which we have read this morning.  Everyone alive, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, is destined to die in the wilderness.  Not until there is a new generation – one untainted by this incident and the misdeeds that came before it – will the Israelites be worthy of reaching the Promised Land.

It is some punishment indeed, extraordinarily harsh at first glance.  They will all die in the wilderness, destined to wander and never reach anywhere.  Provoked by the spies into extremes of emotion, this group of ordinary people will suffer a correspondingly extreme fate.  A midrash – a rabbinic extrapolation from the text – expresses the human pain of this decree.  It describes how each year groups of Israelites would dig their own graves, waiting to die on the anniversary of the decree, which was classically understood to be Tisha B’Av.

But, painful as it seems, it would be an error to reject this as merely the overreaction of a capricious God to a vulnerable people.  As is so often the case in Torah, the story of the spies is a psychological drama, offering us an insight into human nature.  The story of the spies is a narrative about self-perception – how we think and what we feel about ourselves.  It tells us that this can be so deeply grounded as to be near impossible to change.  The fear of the spies and the people is not a rational fear – after all, they have witnessed the miracles wrought by God in Egypt, have crossed a divided sea, have eaten the manna. But the generation that came out of Egypt, despite all they have seen, cannot change how they see themselves.  It is a theme you can trace through the journey of the Israelites from Egypt – through their mistakes and their moaning – here are people so deeply programmed by their experience of slavery in a land of idolatry that they are unable to shake the practices of Egypt, unable to believe, unable to be free.  According to one rabbinic tradition, the generation of the wilderness were themselves giants, warriors, but when they saw the Canaanites, it was their own ingrained insecurities that made them feel like grasshoppers.  They were not ready to see themselves as they truly were.  To do so would require not just a short journey through the wilderness, but a shift in generations.

This is one of the reasons that the imagery of the generation of the desert, the dead of the desert, had such resonance for movements of change in our history.  The intellectuals among the early Zionist pioneers often referred to this biblical moment as they expressed their strong sense of generational divide.  They understood their parents as the generation of the wilderness, unable to take the necessary steps, infected with the disease of exile.  They refused to self-identify as weak in the way that they perceived the previous generations as doing.  For them, the punishment of our portion described a reality – that a radical break from the past involved a break in self-perception between generations.  Going into the land anew was the task of their generation because the behaviours and beliefs, fears, sense of what is possible of the generation before was so deeply rooted outside the land.

This is an insight that resonates for us too.  We have had our divisions in self-perception laid bare for us this week.  Generational, social, educational.  Difference in who we think we are; of what we think we are capable.

There is another powerful message in the generation of the wilderness which has especial significance for us at this moment in our history.  We can forgive the Israelites for their psychological failings – deep seated as they are – but we also need to name what they do wrong.

A generation, the story tells us, can be tainted by the behaviour of their leaders.  A generation can come to embody conflict and behaviours which are not only hard to shift but which can condemn them to wandering.  A generation can become so broken that it is unable to move beyond the wilderness.

Such a generation is characterised by one feature – looseness of language.  How we speak about and to each other.  The language we use has the potential to create distrust, to fracture relationships, to induce powerlessness, and this does not immediately go away, but lives with us.  In our story it is looseness of language – exaggeration, mistruths, calumnies – from the spies which provoke the people to despair and distrust in their leadership, and ultimately fractures their relationship with each other and with God.

Thus the incident of the spies becomes one of the proof incidents for rabbinic warnings about how we speak.  “Come and see,” Rabbi Eleazar ben Perata says in the Talmud, “How great is the power of an evil tongue”.  This is the outcome of speaking ill of a piece of land he says, against wood and rocks.  How much worse is it, how much worse will it be when we speak badly against each other? (Bavli, Arakhin 15a)

This is why, for some of the early rabbis, the punishment was not harsh enough.  In the Mishnah, Rabbi Akiva is reported as stating that not only the spies, but the whole generation would have no share even in the hereafter (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:3).  Not only would they die in the wilderness, deprived of the land promised to their ancestors, but they would also miss out on the world to come.  It was not only that they demonstrated lack of belief.  There are plenty of characters in our story who do that.  But they carried with them a toxicity, a negativity; their loose talk was potentially contaminating for those around them.

This is a learning for our generation.  We live in a time of looseness with words.  A time in which our leaders, on all sides here, and on both sides of the Atlantic, indulge in exaggeration, mistruths, calumnies, have scant regard for the truth, no time for self-reflection.  Our leaders model that which the story of the spies tells us – that truth matters little when up against the power of extreme language – “the very land eats up its inhabitants”.  Throughout our political discourse, we have lost the ability to stop and reflect, to make calm and good arguments.

These are the attitudes that we – my generation – are modelling for our children.  It is what we are saying about those who are different to us, about those with whom we disagree – that they are not to be learned from or tolerated, or respected.  It is what we are saying about learning, expertise, wisdom, reflection, thoughtfulness – that they are redundant.  The voices of Caleb and Joshua in our generation are drowned out by extreme words and extreme reactions.

At the end of the story of the spies, when Moses has persuaded God not to destroy the people there and then, the people look back and realise what has happened.  “We’re ready now,” they say, “We were wrong”.  And Moses says, “It’s too late”.  They try anyway, and are defeated – they think they can turn back time, ignore what has happened, but they can’t – their relationships are fractured, their politics broken.

And, here is our question.  Is it too late for us?
Now that the referendum is done, for good or for ill; now that a decision is made; can we find it in ourselves – can our leaders – to step back from the ugliness displayed over the last few months?  Against a backdrop of uncertainty, questions, insecurity can we rebuild in the most fundamental ways?  Economics, borders and trade agreements will be important to establish.  But more fundamental, can we re-discover decency and moderation?

One of the most powerful, and heart breaking, reflections on the generation of the wilderness comes in the poem “Metei Midbar” – “The dead of the desert”, by the early Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik.  It describes the generation of the dead, existing in stasis in the wilderness.  These are warriors, giants, who have missed their opportunity to fulfil their role, to achieve their destination.  Once in a while they briefly come back to life:

“In that hour, seized by a vibrant impulse the mighty phalanx awakes.
They suddenly rouse themselves, the stalwart men of war, lightning ablaze in their eyes, their faces aflame, hands on swords.
They raise a great shout with one voice, the voice of six hundred thousand,
A voice that tears through the tumult, vies with the desert’s roar.
Encompassed by furious storm, resolute, unyielding, they cry:
‘We are the brave! Last of the enslaved! First to be free…’
Formidable the desert that moment, and who could subdue it?
But fear sounded out of the storm, a strange lamentation, as the desert wrought in its heart its own destruction, a calamity cruel and bitter. Enormous ruin.
The storm ends. The desert is quiet, its wild fury assuaged.”

The task of now, the task of this generation is to calm our wild fury.  We may well look back and say, “We were wrong”, and hear “It is too late”.  But let it not be too late for how we treat one another, let us meet that reality with decency.
We must learn from the story of the spies the extraordinary power of language, and find a new way to engage with one another.  To reach out to one another across our divides of self-perception: national, social, generational.  For if we do not, we may find that it takes a generation for us to rise up out of the wilderness.