In one of his most Promethean poems, “The Dead of the Wilderness,” the modern Hebrew poet Hayyim Nachman Bialik depicts the generation of the world as sleeping giants, who one day will rise tempestuously to declare, “We are the last generation of slavery, and the first generation of freedom!”
Bialik bases his account explicitly on a passage in the Talmud (Bava Batra 73b), where an Arab desert-dweller reported to have seen the “dead of the wilderness,” so huge that a man on a camel with his spear upraised could pass under the bent knee of one of the fallen giants without touching him. He also implicitly relies on the view of Rabbi Eliezer, who in Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:3 claims that the generation of the wilderness have a portion in the World to Come.
The biblical account does not paint such a positive picture of the generation of the wilderness. For the most part, they are depicted as a complaining bunch, constantly questioning Moses’ leadership. In this week’s episode, they seize on the spies’ despairing report, and clamor to return to Egypt. Then paradoxically, after the decree of forty years’ wandering is announced, a bunch of them defiantly mount an expedition to invade the hill country, and are decimated for their efforts.
Can these opposite views of the character of that crucial generation be reconciled?
Anyone who has raised adolescents recognizes their mercurial shifts of mood, from docile conformity to brash assertiveness, marked overall by a contrarian opposition to parental authority. They are in the period of life where they need to take ownership for their lives, to do what they want when they want to do it. They try out a bewildering variety of strategies, veering from one extreme to another. Judgment is not their strong suit. The combination of extreme assertiveness and poor judgment makes this one of the riskiest periods of life. Yet in the end (if the worst outcome is averted), they come out of this period strong and independent, with matured competence, ready to take on whatever challenges life will throw their way.
The generation of the wilderness represent the adolescent phase in the development of the people of Israel.
In Bialik’s poem, expressing a modern Zionist perspective, they represent also the Jewish people in the period of its dormancy in Diaspora, waiting to awaken in strength to retake possession of their land.
Another parallel between the generation of the wilderness and the Zionist narrative is found in the rare word va-ya’pilu in Numbers 14:44: “Yet defiantly they marched toward the crest of the hill country.” The related modern Hebrew term ma’pilim refers to the blockade-runners who smuggled Jews into the Land of Israel during the years of the British White Paper that prohibited Jewish immigration. Like the ancient Israelite insurgents, they defied official edicts to accomplish what they felt was necessary for the redemption of their people. The modern ma’pilim succeeded where the ancient ones failed.
Emil Fackenheim, who wrote of the Jews’ return to history in the modern period, liked to comment on the account of the “three oaths” that the rabbis proclaimed. (See David Patterson, Emil J. Fackenheim: A Jewish Philosopher’s Response to the Holocaust, p. 143.) The Talmudic account (Ketubot 111a) is based on the triple refrain “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem” in the Song of Songs. According to the rabbis, God exacted three oaths, two of the Jews and one of the nations of the world. The Jews were made to promise that they would not “storm the wall,” and that they would not rebel against the nations of the world under whose rule they lived in Diaspora. In return, the nations promised not to persecute the Jews “too much.”
Fackenheim commented that this tale represented the classic stance of Jews in Diaspora, who agreed to submit docilely to gentile rule and not to hasten the coming of the Messiah. However, Fackenheim argued, in time the gentiles forsook their promise and their persecution of the Jews exceeded all conceivably reasonable bounds. At that point, the Jews were right to consider themselves released from their oaths, to take their destiny in hand and to “storm the wall,” by returning to their land. In Bialik’s image, the sleeping generation of giants from the wilderness – the ma’pilim of old – would rise and prevail in the same land where they had previously suffered defeat.
Who were the ancient ma’pilim? According to one midrashic view, one of the men who died in that battle was Zelophehad. (Sifri and Yalkut on Numbers 15:32) Evidently his assertiveness of spirit was inherited by his daughters. They, too, prevailed. (Numbers 27:1-11)
Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR | Read more of Rabbi Len Levin’s Writing Here