Why did the Israelites spend forty years in the wilderness before entering the land of Cana’an? Given how the Torah sets up the narrative, this is not a question that usually merits much attention. Simply, the forty-year sojourn was a punishment for the spies’ negative reports, reflecting a lack of faith in Hashem. However, there is a deeper lesson to be learned if we do not take this text at face value. Rabbi Dr. David Hartman z”l, in his lecture series Israelis and the Jewish Tradition, explains:
“Whereas a literal reading of the biblical story would suggest that the forty-year sojourn in the desert was a punishment for disobedience (see Num. 14), Maimonides explained that in order for the people of Israel to fight against the Canaanites, they had to shed the slave mentality they had acquired during years of Egyptian servitude…The forty-year sojourn in the desert thus expressed God’s patience and acceptance of the slow process of human change, from a people suffering feelings of impotence and inferiority to a confident people able to assume responsibility for their destiny.” (76-77)
On the Rambam’s (Maimonides’) reading, the forty years spent in the wilderness were not a punishment at all, but rather an act of Divine love. Hashem acknowledged the slow process of human change, and the necessity of approaching the next stage of the Israelite’s collective journey as a people in a frame of mind distinct from the one operative during their more than four centuries of slavery in Egypt. As the spies showed, recently freed slaves are not ready to assume the responsibility of nation-building, or the faith in Hashem that that requires. The time period — forty years — and the connection made to a full generation, so that only Calev and Yehoshua (the two faithful spies) were alive to cross the Jordan and enter Cana’an, underscores the fact that, in Hashem’s estimation, the imprint of the slavery in Egypt was so deep that it could not be erased unless you had experienced the Exodus as a young person.
This is an extremely interesting way to view this period of Jewish (mythical) history, and the light it casts on the nature of Hashem is worth incorporating into other areas of Jewish life. Specifically, I wonder what this understanding of the first Jewish experience of oppression-to-freedom could do in helping us view the modern State of Israel in a new light. It is often claimed, by defenders of Israel when responding to various criticisms, that ‘Israel is a very young country.’ This seems perfectly reasonable, and the Rambam’s reading of the forty years in the wilderness makes the claim even more striking. Imagine if, like Hashem’s guiding the Israelites for forty years before entering Cana’an, world Jewry had had forty years to gather its strength and deepen our connections to each other and to Hashem, after the Holocaust and before the founding of the State of Israel. I know that the claim that Israel was born out of the ashes of the Shoah is tenuous, and I do not mean to make a causal claim. However, the fact that Israel was founded less than five years after the end of the Shoah, on the Rambam’s model, leaves the Jewish people lacking thirty-five years of a deep cleansing of mind, body and spirit. If no adult who lived under Egyptian slavery was deemed capable — by Hashem — of bringing the Israelites into Cana’an and establishing a productive, just society (again, except for Calev and Yehoshua), then how are we to imagine that anyone who experienced the concentration camps as an adult was any more ready to build a modern nation-state around the best that the traditions of Judaism and democracy had to offer?
Given that 20th century history did not allow a period of forty years to recover from the atrocities of the Shoah, complete with angelic protection and a constant source of Divine food and water, why does it matter that the ancient Israelites had this luxury? I think that, primarily, the Rambam’s drash (exegetical interpretation) helps to support a charitable reading of Israel’s actions up to the present, as a nation born in extreme conditions. This includes not just the fact that Israel has fought (at least) three wars for her survival in her sixty-five year history, but that the people who founded the state were — by the standards of their own scriptural texts — not spiritually ready for that work. Given that, in the Israeli imagination, very few years since 1948 have been free of serious existential threat, I think that the Rambam’s metaphor could usefully be extended to argue that, until a generation of Israelis — and Palestinians, by the same token — grow up outside the shadow of such oppression, it is hard to imagine that leaders will emerge who are ready to take on the tasks that Moshe himself was deemed unfit to manage, and bring true peace to the region. I therefore see the primary responsibility of all parties to be a concerted effort aimed at improving living conditions and decreasing hostilities of any type so that some future generation can point back to forty years of relative calm, the necessary prerequisite to a lasting peace.