At the heart of the negative emotion that suffuses the central chapters of Numbers is fear, specifically fear of freedom. The Israelites were about to undertake an unprecedented task, to create a new kind of society that would be radically unlike any that existed at that time, a society based on covenant, collective responsibility and nomocracy — the rule of laws, not men.
Freedom means a loss of security and predictability. It means taking responsibility for your actions in a way a slave does not need to do. It means letting go of passivity and dependence. It means growing up as individuals and as a nation.
Throughout their journey from Egypt to Sinai the people did not have to think about freedom. They were fleeing their persecutors. They were focused on survival. But now, as they were leaving Sinai on their way to the land, the full realisation dawned on them of what lay ahead. As a nation, they were about to lose their childhood.
Michael Walzer points out that “there is a kind of bondage in freedom: the bondage of law, obligation and responsibility.” The Israelites could, he says, “become free only insofar as they accepted the discipline of freedom, the obligation to live up to a common standard and to take responsibility for their own actions.”
Freedom, the Torah candidly acknowledges, is immensely demanding. It is avodah, “hard work.” It is striking that the Torah uses the same Hebrew word to describe slavery to Pharaoh and servitude to God. There is all the difference in the world between being enslaved to a human ruler and serving the Creator of the universe who made us all in His image, but the difference is not that the one is hard and the other is easy. They are both hard work, but one breaks the spirit, the other lifts and exalts it.
Fearing freedom, the people take refuge in false nostalgia. They say, “We remember the fish we ate without cost in Egypt — also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic” (Numbers0 11:5). The sages perceptively understood the meaning of the phrase, “without cost”. The cost after all was high: slavery and forced labour. “Without cost” means at no cost in mitzvot, in divine commands and human responsibility. The false nostalgia reaches its bitter climax when, during the Korah rebellion, Datan and Aviram call Egypt “a land flowing with milk and honey”.
In all this, we hear a clear message of political realism. There is no sense in the Torah that the journey to the Promised Land is easy or straightforward, free of doubt or conflict. To the contrary: despite its narratives of bread from heaven, water from a rock, ground that opens up to swallow opponents, talking donkeys, sticks that bud and blossom, and people who turn leprous because of slander, the fundamental message of Numbers is that the road to freedom is longer and harder than anyone anticipated at the outset.
In the end, it took longer than a single generation. That is the key burden of the episode of the spies, the central story of the book. The generation rescued by Moses from oppression in Egypt had grown used to its chains. The people were not yet ready for the “difficult freedom” of battles, military preparedness and the willingness to take destiny into their own hands. Change must come slowly; revolutions based, as were the French and Russian, on a sudden transformation of human nature are destined to fail.
Evolution, not revolution, is the point of Numbers. It is impossible, writes Moses Maimonides in Guide for the Perplexed, to go from one extreme to another in nature, and that includes human nature.
And although it took the episode of the spies to condemn Moses’s generation to die without reaching the land, Maimonides suggests that this was hinted at almost as soon as the Israelites left Egypt: “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, ‘If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt’” (Exodus 13:17). When it comes to the human heart, change is slow, slower than can be achieved in a single generation.
But it is not impossible. It takes time — and time is one of Numbers’ themes. The two views against which it is set are neatly exemplified in the story of the spies and the immediately following narrative of the ma’apilim (Numbers 14:40–45), the people who, having heard of God’s anger at the spies, presume the next morning to go straight into battle and begin the conquest. Moses urges them not to go, but they insist and are defeated.
The two political ideas to which Numbers is opposed are never and immediately. Never is the counsel of despair and political reaction. Immediately is the temptation of political messianism and revolution. Both end in oppression.
Freedom is the work of generations. It is always an unfinished symphony, a work in progress. If there is one aphorism that sums up Numbers’ view of society and its leaders it is Rabbi Tarfon’s “It is not for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Mishnah Avot 2:16). Its view of politics is that rarest of combinations: a pessimism that refuses to let go of hope.
This is an extract from Numbers: The Wilderness Years, published by Maggid, £18.99 — the fourth volume of Lord Sacks’s Covenant & Conservation series of essays on the Torah