The articles in this column are transcriptions and adaptations of shiurim by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l.
There was a gap of 38 years between the Korach rebellion and the death of Miriam coinciding with Bnei Yisrael entering Midbar Tzin. The passing of Miriam suggests the (unrelated) culmination of the death sentence pronounced on the Exodus generation due to the meraglim episode. The Torah describes in detail the events of the first two years in the desert, but we have minimal insight as to what transpired during the subsequent 38 years. What did Moshe do during that long, enigmatic and frightening period?
The bridge between the conclusion of Parshas Korach and the beginning of Parshas Chukas suggests a clue as to what transpired during those 38 years. In Parshas Dvarim, Moshe reviews their travels after the meraglim episode and says that they spent many days, 38 years, circling Mount Sayir. He noted that Hashem confused them during that period of hester panim. Though the people went through the motions of repenting and returning to Hashem, Vatashuvu vativku lifnei Hashem, their prayers were rejected, typical of a period of hester panim. The Rambam explains circular movement as being without gain or achievement. He describes the circular movement of the heavenly bodies as they attempt to approach Hashem yet always fail and repeat their attempt. Similarly, Bnei Yisrael repeatedly failed to approach Mount Sayir. It was a bleak period of hester panim for Moshe as well, with no prayer, no communication with Hashem.
So what did Bnei Yisrael do during the 38 year interval? The Gemara tells us that each year the entire congregation would dig graves and lay down in them on the night of Tisha B’Av. In the morning the call went out for the living to separate from the dead. The whole congregation died each Tisha B’Av with some regaining life the next day. They died 38 times in the desert. Life was no different from death. It was a life without hope and anticipation. Each one knew that ultimately he would end up in one of those graves. It did not matter if they survived this year. Eventually they would die. They spent 38 years in a state of death disconnected from Hashem.
The people were understandably depressed. Perhaps that is why the Torah says that when they came to Midbar Tzin they were all alive, that the period of darkness without hope ended. The greatest of men, Moshe, had to wait for the redemption and sprinkling of the purification waters on Bnei Yisrael from Hashem, conveyed by the section of the parah adumah, to indicate that the period of death had ended. Perhaps that is why challah and terumos and ma’asros are mentioned in Shlach and Korach, after they had been sentenced to wander in the desert, to reinsure the people that eventually they will enter Eretz Yisrael. They were told that eventually Hashem will sprinkle purifying water on the people marking the conclusion of hester panim. However in the interim, Hashem’s dialogue with Moshe and the people was suspended for 38 years until the termination of the meraglim generation.
The episode at Midbar Tzin announced the end of hester panim. It took place 38 years after Parshas Parah was given. But it heralded the most difficult part of the decree against the meraglim generation: the deaths of Moshe and Aaron. Moshe’s punishment described in the parsha is most tragic. He was chosen to redeem the people, he loved them dearly and personally sacrificed so much for them. He received the Torah that contained mitzvos that could only be performed in Eretz Yisrael. He longed for the moment that he would practice those mitzvos and travel the length and breadth of the land. After the incident of Mei Meriva, Hashem forbade him to even pray for the recision of the oath prohibiting his entry to the land, an unparalleled prohibition against prayer.