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B’shallah, Maimonides, and Strengthening the Faith

January 29, 2015

This week we read about how our ancestors survived their wanderings in the wilderness. Although most are taught the Midrash about how our ancestors had a constant and ample supply of water from Miriam’s well wherever they went, the plain meaning of the text is that they had to wander from oasis to oasis, take water with them wherever they went, and sometimes buy water from others. This is the explicit assumption of Maimonides, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and Abarbanel. (I ask readers to remember the first rule of narrative Midrashim: for every story, there is a contradictory one. See: How Balaam was, according to the Midrash, anywhere from 400 to 35 years old at the time of his death.)

In the Guide, Maimonides uses the circumstances of the Israelites’ travels to teach us about how God sometimes uses roundabout means in order to instill lessons that can not be comprehended at once. Just like it was better to slowly wean the people away from sacrificial service than to abolish it at once, the Lord did not take His people immediately to the Promised Land (Guide, 3:32):

There occurs in the Torah a passage which contains exactly the same idea; it is the following: “God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt; but God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea,” etc. (Exod. 13:17). Here God led the people about, away from the direct road which He originally intended, because He feared they might meet on that way with hardships too great for their ordinary strength; He took them by another road in order to obtain thereby His original object. In the same manner God refrained from prescribing what the people by their natural disposition would be incapable of obeying, and gave the above-mentioned commandments as a means of securing His chief object, viz., to spread a knowledge of Him [among the people], and to cause them to reject idolatry. It is contrary to man’s nature that he should suddenly abandon all the different kinds of Divine service and the different customs in which he has been brought up, and which have been so general, that they were considered as a matter of course; it would be just as if a person trained to work as a slave with mortar and bricks, or similar things, should interrupt his work, clean his hands, and at once fight with real giants. It was the result of God’s wisdom that the Israelites were led about in the wilderness till they acquired courage. For it is a well-known fact that traveling in the wilderness, and privation of bodily enjoyments, such as bathing, produce courage, while the reverse is the source of faint-heartedness: besides, another generation rose during the wanderings that had not been accustomed to degradation and slavery.

The lack of plentiful water throughout their travels proved to be to their benefit. All they had been slaves in Egypt, they had had no shortages of food, water, and shelter, but in the desert they grew to be free men, but tough men who did not take food, water, and shelter for granted. This was all part of His plan. 

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