Bemidbar and the missing Thirty-Eight years
This week we begin reading Sefer Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers. All the Hebrew names of the books of the Torah come from an original word that appears in the first or second passuk of the book and do not necessarily have anything to do with the theme of the book. Eg. The name Shemot, the second Book of the Torah (i.e. Exodus), has nothing to do with theme of the book.
While we are not sure when the books of the Pentateuch received the names we use today, it is clear that the Rabbis had different names for them. The Rabbis call Bereshit, Sefer HaYetsira (Genesis), Shemot is Sefer HaGeula (Exodus), VaYikra is Torat Kohanim (Leviticus), Bemidbar is Sefer HePekudim (Numbers or Musterings), while Devarim is Mishneh Torah (Deuteronomy).
As is demonstrated, the Greek names are for more loyal to the ancient rabbinical names than the present names we use for them.
Nevertheless, Bemidbar is good name for the book, as it describes Israel's forty year sojourn in the wilderness; or at first glance it does. However if we examine the events of Bemidbar we will see that it only covers a small portion of those years. Indeed, chapters 1-18 discuss events that occurred in the first two years after the Exodus, while Chapters 20-36 discuss events that occurred in the fortieth year (Chapter 19 is about the Red Heifer – it is timeless - we discussed once why it belongs here - see http://parshablog.blogspot.com/2006/06/parshat-chukat-red-heifer-and-sefer.html).
Therefore, Sefer Bemidbar discusses very little about Israel's wandering in the wilderness. What happened during the missing thirty-eight years? Why are not told anything about them
Bemidbar is disappointing book in that it describes Israel's repeated rebellions and failures. The impression we get is that the wilderness period was a negative period. However, the Prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) informs us that that impression could not be further from the truth: "So said the Lord: I remember to you the loving kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials, your following Me in the desert, in a land not sown" (Yirmyahu 2:3). The wilderness years were generally joyful and loyal.
So again, why is all this missing?
In order to answer this question we must first ask ourselves what is the purpose of Sefer Bemidbar. What message is it trying to teach?
Sefer Bemidbar is not a history book, the episodes we are told were carefully selected in order to teach us a message. It does not teach us how we spent the forty years in the wilderness, but why we spent forty years in the wilderness.
Therefore, the episodes it recounts are all based around that message. It begins by teaching us about the recruiting of an army, the military encampments and the preparations for conquest. The final stage of preparation, the sending of the spies, ends in failure and Israel is forced to start again and spend forty years in the wilderness. The Torah then describes Israel's immediate reaction to the forty year decree, before skipping to the fortieth to describe how Israel was finally ready and reached the borders of the Promised Land.
Therefore, the forty years were mostly a positive period for Israel. Sefer Bemidbar does not describe those events, because it does not fit in with its overall message.
Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Bemidbar, entitled: "Counting the Levi'im" appears at http://parshablog.blogspot.com/2008/05/parshat-bemidbar-counting-leviim-this.html
Another Sedra Short on Parshat Bemidbar, entitled: "The Levites" appears at http://parshablog.blogspot.com/2007/05/parshat-bemidbar-levites-moshe-was.html
A further Sedra Short on Parshat Bemidbar entitled: "Re’uel or De’uel?" appears at http://parshablog.blogspot.com/2006/05/parshat-bemidbar-reuel-or-deuel-moshe.html