Reading through last week’s parsha, it is hard not to notice the similarity of many of its stories to those in the book of Bamidbar. In particular, many of the catastrophic complaints that we see later on are already seen in the book of Shemot. In both places, the Jews complain about food and water and more generally about Moshe’s leadership. And yet, for example, whereas the complaint about food in Shemot doesn’t lead to any punishment, in Bemidbar it leads to the death of many. This in itself is not so difficult to understand. The Jews coming out of Egypt had much less experience and their fears were somewhat more tolerable than those who had already seen God’s hand in similar circumstances.
More interesting however is the net effect of the trials in Shemot as compared to those in Bamidbar. When the Jews finally come to Sinai (19:1), many commentators ask why the Torah given when it was. No one is surprised that the Torah wasn’t given immediately after the Jews left Egypt, even though it was the first logical time for such an event to happen. But why not earlier or later on the desert trek (or even in the holier Land of Israel)?
Many commentators feel that one or more of the numbers involved here is what determined the preparation time needed to be ready for the stand at Mount Sinai. Starting with the Talmud and possibly alluded to in the Torah itself, many find it significant that it occurred in the third month. Others look to the forty-nine days or the seven weeks of preparation as being the key. Though Malbim also relates to the number three, he posits that the Jews specifically required ten previous stops in order to be prepared. But most interesting is how he explains this: According to him, “they were purified from the impurity of Egypt… through the segments of the journey… as their souls were prepared towards faith; since with each segment of the journey, they were tested by a new test and they went out from the impurity of Egypt to a higher level of holiness.”
While we may initially be surprised by Malbim’s words, they actually provide the most naturalistic explanation of the preparation period. God needed to bring the Jews through certain galvanizing experiences before they would be ready for the most direct mass revelation in history. Since that revelation would require a truly proper relationship with God, the Jews would need to go through experiences that would build that relationship. This is almost self-evident: To disagree with Malbim, we would have to suggest that God gave the Torah to the Jews in spite of their situation. In other words, if the various complaints brought the Jews to a lower spiritual level, why didn’t God have the revelation earlier or wait until a better time later.
If Malbim’s comments make great logical sense, one still has to explain them – how is it that the apparent failures marked by the early complaints in the desert actually made the Jews better? This question is brought into stark relief when we note that very similar events seemed to have the diametrically opposite effect in Bamidbar.
What we see here is the fact that failures can actually be the best things that ever happen to us. In order for that to be the case, however, we have to be prepared to learn from them. Apparently, this is what happened in the first two months after the Jews left Egypt.
At first glance, we might think that the Jews don’t learn from the complaints on the way to Mount Sinai, as one complaint just follows another. But this is where we need to read Malbim carefully, as he was careful to tell us that each test was new. And so it took a variety of tests for the Jews to learn about the various aspects of faith that they would need to be ready for Sinai. A series of similar mistakes does not imply a lack of learning – so long as there is a significant enough difference among them. On the contrary, the ability to learn in such a situation shows the perseverance of determination. In our case, the Jews were determined to get to Mount Sinai, even if they had to pick up the pieces many times before they were ready.
But whereas a failure can be the most effective type of learning experience, it doesn’t have to be. And so it appears that the later complaints of Bamidbar no longer led to the advancement that comes from their proper review and internalization. When that happens, it only leads to demoralization followed by degeneration, which is exactly what brought on one catastrophe after another there.
We learn something priceless here. Failure is not the end of the world. In fact, it can just as easily be the beginning. And when it is, it has the power to bring us to Sinai.