From Complaint to Confidence

July 10, 2024

The Torah portion of Chukat (Numbers 19:1–22:1) marks a significant transition from the Israelites’ second year in the desert to their fortieth year. The Israelites are now on the final leg of their journey, almost ready to enter the Promised Land.

The portion begins with the laws of the Red Heifer, and then mentions death of Miriam and a subsequent lack of water. According to the sages, the well that provided water for the Israelites throughout their desert wanderings existed due to Miriam’s merit. With her passing, the well ceased to function, and the people began to complain (Numbers 20:1-13). Shortly thereafter, after turning back to bypass the land of Edom which refused them passage, they complained about the manna (Numbers 21:4-9).

These complaints seem to echo those of the previous generation, raising the question: had nothing changed after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness? Had the lessons of their parents’ generation been forgotten?

Rabbi Yair Kahn suggests that a closer examination of the text reveals that while the complaints persisted, their nature had shifted significantly. Let’s first look at the complaint regarding the manna:

This complaint mirrors the complaint recorded earlier in the book of Numbers:

“The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!'” (Numbers 11:4-6)

While these two complaints sound the same, a closer analysis of the complaints reveals a significant change. While the complaints of the first generation reflected a desire to return to Egypt, the second generation’s complaints were rooted in impatience to enter the Promised Land.

The first generation fondly remembered the food they had enjoyed in Egypt: “We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” The second generation, however, is not looking back to Egypt but expressing frustration over the delay in entering Israel. They were tired of the wilderness, “the people grew restive on the journey,” and they were eager to claim the land promised to them.

This shift is also evident in their complaints about water. The first generation questioned the very purpose of their exodus from Egypt, suggesting it was a mistake: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3). In contrast, the second generation’s frustration was directed towards their continued wandering and the delay in reaching the land of Israel:

The mention of specific fruits—figs, pomegranates, and grapes—was a clear reference to the report of the spies who returned with these fruits from the Promised Land (Numbers 13:23). This generation was not afraid of entering the land; they were eager to do so and frustrated by the continued delay. “Why did you… bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates?”

The change in attitude is crucial. The first generation was plagued by fear and a slave mentality that made them hesitant to enter the Promised Land. This was brought home with sin of the spies, after which they were destined to die in the wilderness over a forty-year period. The second generation, while still human and prone to complaints, displayed a readiness and eagerness to claim their inheritance. Their impatience and frustration were born not out of fear, but out of a strong desire to finally enter and settle in the land promised to their ancestors.

This evolution in attitude highlights the growth of the Israelites over their forty years of wandering. Despite their complaints, their focus had shifted from longing for Egypt to yearning for the Land of Israel. This change in perspective was a significant step towards their entry into the Promised Land.

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Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter is the content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. She earned master’s degrees in both Jewish Education and Bible from Yeshiva University. She taught the Hebrew Bible at a high school in New Jersey for eight years before making Aliyah with her family in 2013. Shira joined the Israel365 staff shortly after moving to Israel and contributed significantly to the development and publication of The Israel Bible.

Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter is the content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. She earned master’s degrees in both Jewish Education and Bible from Yeshiva University. She taught the Hebrew Bible at a high school in New Jersey for eight years before making Aliyah with her family in 2013. Shira joined the Israel365 staff shortly after moving to Israel and contributed significantly to the development and publication of The Israel Bible.

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