Politicians commonly complain that a statement or even a single word they uttered was taken out of context. It's a complaint we'll hear many times as the race for the White House heats up. Likewise, the name of this week's Torah portion, Parshat Bamidbar, can be taken out of context. It opens by telling us that "God spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai."
So we see that the Israelites were in the wilderness. The word "wilderness" — when taken out of context — has a very ominous sound. You tend to think of it as a place of emptiness, where you might very well be lost and cut off from the outside world. The wilderness is a place of danger.
A superficial reading of the events that occur in the wilderness supports the idea that it's a place of danger. The book of Numbers is full of catastrophic events the Israelites bring upon themselves.
In Parshat Shelach, spies are sent to spy out the land of Canaan. Ten of the 12 of them return to the Israelite camp with a negative report, thus leading the people to suggest retreat to Egypt, the land of bondage. The Israelites are only saved from extermination through the intervention of Moses, but God decrees that this generation — the generation of the Exodus — will die in the desert.
Moses and Aaron are also barred from entering the Promised Land when they fail to sanctify God's name in Parshat Chukat. God commanded Moses to sanctify his name by bringing forth water from the rock by speaking to it; instead, Moses lost his temper and struck the rock twice.
And, of course, there is the rebellion of Korach, Dathan and Abiram, who challenge the divinely ordained leadership of Moses and Aaron in Parshat Korach. The rebellion is put down, but only after 14,000 Israelites die.
So Bamidbar — "the wilderness" — seems to be a place of disaster. But if we look at the events in the context of the rest of the Torah, the picture's not as bleak. Though the generation of the Exodus perishes in the wilderness, their children do enter the Promised Land.
In other words, the Children of Israel lived on to fight another day. Under the leadership of Moses' successor, Joshua, the Israelite were provided with the youthful, energetic leadership, which was needed for the eventual conquest of Canaan.
The Big Picture
The peaceful transition of leadership between Moses and Joshua was able to take place because the rebellion of Korach was put down, demonstrating that God's chosen leaders were beyond challenge.
The precedent of a peaceful transition of power is a key element for national survival. The Northern Kingdom of Israel failed to survive in part because it was shaken by constant insurrections, which destabilized the kingdom's leadership at a time of foreign threat when strong leadership was most needed. On the other hand, the southern Kingdom of Judah survived even in exile, partly due to the stability of its leadership.
It is tempting to analyze (and over-analyze) each event — big or small — that takes place in our life. If we take each thing separately and divorce it from the narrative of our life, every event becomes magnified. If the event is a negative, it devastates us. What is the solution to this basic human tendency?
By viewing individual events within the context of our lifelong narrative, we are able to see the big picture, and realize that things are not really as bad as they appear at any particular moment. And if we look closely enough, we can see the hand of God operating in our lives — just as it operated in the lives of our ancestors who lived in the wilderness.
After all, Am Yisrael Chai, the People of Israel live.
Rabbi Steven Saks is the religious leader of Adath Zion Congregation in Northeast Philadelphia.