In Torah portion Ekev, as we go more deeply into Moses’ second speech to the Israelites prior to their entering Canaan, look carefully at how he explains to the people the meaning of their having wandered in the desert for forty years. In Deuteronomy, chapter 8, Moses makes clear what God’s intent was: to test the people’s faith by simultaneously subjecting them to hardships and supporting them. God, Moses tells them, was like a parent disciplining his child, constantly refining their spiritual resilience and clarifying their consciousness of the true source of their blessings. Some of my students and I were stunned when we recently studied this portion in comparison with Numbers, chapter 14. There, God berates the Israelites for their faithlessness and their attempt to return to Egypt, due to their fear-filled refusal to try to conquer the promised land. God declares explicitly that the generation of former slaves would die in the desert, while their free-born children would possess the promised land after the whole slave generation had died out over a period of forty years of wandering.
Look at the contrast between these two explanations of the same event. God declares that the forty year wandering was decreed by God out of anger, as punishment for Israelite intransigence. Moses later reads the history of the forty year wandering in a radically different way: it was a form of spiritual discipline imposed by a loving God upon this people that needed to grow up spiritually and emotionally. Interestingly enough, Moses explanation is followed by his command to them that when they enter the land and enjoy it to the fullest, they will thank and bless God for all of it: an even more emphatic way of saying that their wanderings were a teaching tool for developing in them a sense of appreciation and gratitude.
Which version explaining the forty year wandering of the people is correct? From the Israelites’ back-looking perspective, perhaps both. God did punish the people for their rebellious intransigence, but God also wanted to refine the people’s understanding of where their support and blessings truly come from. Moses seems to be telling the people and us that we read our lives in many different ways. The goal of a cultivated spiritual perspective on life is twofold: to look with maturity at the reality of the hardships we experience, without pretending them away. At the same time, we try to interpret those hardships and challenges in ways that help us to form a meaningful appreciation of our experiences, what we learn from them, and how we grow in compassion as a result of them.