We find ourselves this week immersed in an epic leadership challenge: a power struggle between Moshe, the Israelites, and God. Exhausted from their already perilous journey through the wilderness and daunted by the road ahead, the Israelites’ vigor and determination begins to wane and peel away, revealing the panic and anger of a people that no longer trusts its leadership. Their setbacks on this road have been many: Twelve spies have been sent to survey their land and the report is less than promising, triggering more exhaustion and a desire to return to what they knew before—to Mitzrayim. Hurt by this rejection and angered by the rebellion, God reacts with vengeance, vowing for this entire generation of Israelites to perish. Ever the mediary, Moshe inserts himself into this power struggle, negotiating between God and B’nai Israel—searching for a way to push through these difficult moments of the journey.
Today, the exhaustion we experience on a difficult journey feels more palpable than ever. When we face significant setbacks—be it in controlling this virus, in our work toward dismantling systemic racism, or in the many urgent and significant issues of our day, the pull to run back to Mitzrayim may feel nearly irresistible. How do we stay focused and steady on the path of our midbar—our wilderness—even when we cannot see the end of that path?
Immediately after this episode in Numbers 13-14, chapter 15 opens with God giving a set of guidelines for the sacrificial offerings upon entering the land. Seder Eliyahu Rabbah, a 10th-century midrashic commentary, notes the significance in giving such a guideline after the prior narrative. This midrash imagines God using Torah to soothe the Israelites with a reminder of this greatest gift in this moment of upheaval. The midrash expounds:
At that time God said to Moses: “Go appease them, the poor people, as their heart has departed them.” Said Moses: “Master, how shall I appease them?” God said: “Appease them with words of Torah: ‘When you come into the Land…and you make a fire-offering to God…’”
In this moment of upheaval in which we find ourselves, when we feel our own hearts have departed us, we must seek to find not only the Torah that will soothe us, but the Torah that will keep us laser-focused on the task at hand and the long path along which we walk. We cannot necessarily see or even fully imagine our Eretz Yisrael, but may we use a vision of that future as a motivation to continue taking steps forward, resisting the urge to turn around and run back to Mitzrayim.