Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bamidbar, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
Immediately after outlining the laws of the para aduma, the Torah resumes its historical narrative with the statement “And the children of Israel, the whole assembly, arrived in the Wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and the nation settled in Kadesh; and Miriam died there and was buried there.”
Something astonishing has occurred in the Torah that could easily escape our notice. Nearly thirty-eight years have passed without comment from the text.
The last historical event recorded in the text, the rebellion of Korach and its aftermath, took place at the beginning of the nation’s forty-year period of wilderness wandering. The death of Miriam, however, occurs at the end of this period, in the fortieth year of wandering. From this point in the text until the end of the book of Devarim and the close of the Torah, the Torah deals solely with the final year in the wilderness and with the commandments transmitted by Moshe during that year.
What happened to the bulk of the forty-year period of wilderness wandering? Clearly these have been important, formative years. An entire generation, the generation of the Exodus, has perished and a new generation has risen, destined to enter the land. According to numerous commentaries that is why the Torah now states, “And the children of Israel, the whole assembly, arrived in the Wilderness of Tzin….” The entirety of the nation that will enter the land is now present and accounted for.
Why, then, do all the wilderness years passed without any comment in the text at all – without, in fact, even a note that they have passed?
Strangely enough, the Torah’s silence concerning the missing thirty-eight years is matched by a similar silence from the classical commentaries. While some of the scholars, such as the Chizkuni, are clearly aware of the phenomenon of the missing years, they make no attempt to explain why the Torah does not chronicle this period of time more fully.
Perhaps the key to this mystery lies in the answer to another, more technical question.
What is the symbolism of the repeated appearance of the number forty at critical moments of the biblical text? Why are there forty years of rain that create the flood, forty days repeatedly spent by Moshe on the summit of Mount Sinai over the course of Revelation, forty days during which the spies tour the land of Canaan, forty years of wandering in the wilderness…?
A possible answer emerges from an unexpected source.
In commenting on the development of a human fetus, the Talmud states that, until the passage of forty days from conception, the embryo is considered to be maya b’alma, mere water. From that point on, the fetus enters a new, more advanced stage of development. Clearly, to the rabbinic mind, the fortieth day marks a critical point in the birthing process.
If the number forty represents a critical juncture in the biological birthing of a human being, perhaps the number forty plays a similar role throughout Jewish tradition. Upon consideration, each time a phenomenon appears in units of forty in the Torah text, a new reality is about to be born. The forty days of rain in Noach’s time mark not only the destruction of the old world but the birth of a new one; Moshe’s forty days on the summit of Mount Sinai signal the birth of a new nation forged on the foundation of God’s law; the forty-day tour of the spies through Canaan gives rise to the birth of a new, devastating reality for the generation of the Exodus; and the forty years of wilderness wandering give birth to a new generation of Israelites who will enter the land.
The forty-year period of wilderness wandering, therefore, carries no intrinsic independent significance. The significance of these years emerges instead as a period of incubation, a time when, step by step, a new generation is forged through a crucible of experience. The value of the wilderness years will be determined by the nature of the generation born, by the product created during the passing years.
Will this new generation of Israelites avoid the missteps of their fathers? Will this people, surrounded by clouds of God’s protection, sustained on the heaven-sent manna, live in their journeys through God’s manifest will, effectively transitioning from the fear of God to the love of God? Will the forty years have done their job?
These questions can only be answered in retrospect, as the story of this generation unfolds, after the wilderness years have passed. The Torah therefore remains silent concerning the passage of the years themselves, allowing us to draw our conclusions concerning their value after the fact, on the basis of the generation born.
Points to Ponder
Often, we attribute automatic power to time’s passage: Give it time…. Things will get better…. Time heals…. Things get better over time….prohibited at any time after conception unless the life of the mother is threatened. Under all circumstances, appropriate rabbinic authority should be consulted.
And yet, when we consider our own experience and the experience of those around us, we are forced to admit that the passage of time doesn’t always “make things better.” In fact, often the reverse is true. As time passes, unaddressed psychic wounds can fester, perceived slights can grow in intensity and misunderstandings can turn into hostility.
As a rabbi, I have experienced the tragedy of families unwilling to sit together even at the funeral of a loved one. When asked, however, as to the origin of the problem, family members often cannot remember. A small slight, a minor insult lost in the mists of memory turns, over time, into a permanent rift that can no longer be repaired.
The Torah’s silence concerning the Israelites’ forty-year wilderness passage reminds us of a lesson too often forgotten: The passage of time, in and of itself, is immaterial. What matters is what takes place during that time, and how those events impact upon our lives.
If, over the years, problems are ignored and reconciliation avoided, then the passage of time will work against us. If, on the other hand, we use our time wisely and constructively, confronting our shared issues squarely and with sensitivity, then time will surely be our ally.