Have you ever pretended that you were one of the Israelites during the 40-year Exodus? Not a pleasant thought, perhaps. After all, if you were an adult at the beginning of the journey, it meant that you were once a slave. It also meant that, unless your name was Joshua or Caleb, you did not live long enough to enter the Promised Land.
You see, the Book of Numbers describes how these Israelites were told that, because of their disobedience, their carcasses would drop in the desert before their children would enter the Promised Land.
Of course, if you were younger than an adult when the journey began, you were present to hear the final speeches spoken by Moses, as outlined in the Book of Deuteronomy, including this week’s Torah portion: Eikev.
By the time those who had become adults during the Exodus heard Moses, they had wandered for a long time and had seen or survived both battles and disease.
If you were present to listen to Moses instruct the people of Israel on how to act when they entered the Promised Land, would you have rolled your eyes when he stated, for the umpteenth time, that you should not worship other gods, you should fear your God, and you should follow all of God’s commandments?
Would you be flattered to hear that God had stated a reason to be kind to the stranger (“You, too, were once a stranger in the Land of Egypt.”)?
As you stood on the edge of the Promised Land listening to Moses remind you that the slaves were freed from Egypt by a mighty hand, would you realize that the adults freed by that mighty hand were all dead? Would you ask yourself if disobedience was the only reason? After all, wouldn’t you realize that you were a part of the origin story of a new people?
Might you look around at those poised to enter the Promised Land and ask yourself, “Why us, 40 years after Egypt, and not our parents as soon as they crossed the Red Sea?”
Perhaps the explanation for God’s emphasis on the past at this moment is that God knew us better than we knew ourselves. Is it possible that God wanted the people who would enter Canaan – and who would have to conquer Canaan – to be without the memory of slavery? Did God recognize that although his mighty hand could bring their bodies out of slavery, it could not bring their hearts out of slavery?
Here’s the problem God faced: Yes, it is better to begin a new people without the personal memory of slavery, but were those individuals who were ready to enter the Promised Land that much different from those who left Egypt 40 years before? Likely not. So Moses instructed them: “Do not forget how you angered the Lord, your God, in the desert; for the day you went out of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebelling against me.”
But this statement, however accurate, was not enough; Moses provides examples. At Horeb, God was so angry at the Israelites that he almost destroyed them. How could they be worshipping an idol while Moses was receiving the Tablets? Moses then provides four other locations where the people of Israel provoked God’s anger.
More than a few of us, when hearing these words, might have mumbled to ourselves that we were not responsible for those actions. Sound familiar? Are we not doing the same thing now? In the year 2020, when we see the results of injustices perpetrated years ago, do we not tell ourselves that it was not our doing? But if Moses could speak to the people who were set to enter the Promised Land as if they were the ones who had rebelled against God from the beginning, should we not ask ourselves if anything – or anyone – has changed since then?
I suggest that God was not interested in the feelings of those who were ready to enter the Promised Land. Instead, God needed Moses to utter a message that would be timeless: We each have the capacity to provoke God’s anger, and we need to remember those times when people just like us have done so in the past if we are to follow God into the future.
And now back to the very first question: Have you ever pretended you were one of the Israelites during the 40-year Exodus? No need to pretend. You’re there.
RABBI JOE MURRAY is a hospice chaplain and the Jewish chaplain at RI's Adult Correctional Institutions. He also teaches Bible studies to adults and a biblical Hebrew class via Zoom.