“Command the children of Israel: This is the land which shall fall to you as an inheritance, the land of Canaan and its boundaries” (Numbers 34:2)
These closing portions of the Book of Numbers conclude the story of the desert generation, almost all of whom perished before reaching the Promised Land. The sin of the scouts occurred in the second year of the desert sojourn, after which they were all informed that the desert would become their grave. How did the Hebrews have the fortitude to persevere for the next 38 years, knowing that the goal of settling the Land of Israel would not be realized during their lifetimes? How does someone persist with the struggles of life knowing that they are suffering from a terminal illness?
On the deepest level, each of us is plagued by this problem as soon as we become aware of our own mortality. Most of us manage to repress such “intimations of mortality” fairly successfully. The Midrash teaches that each year, after the sin of the scouts, Moses ordered every Hebrew to dig his own grave on the evening of the ninth of Av and sleep in it. The next morning, a significant percentage would not get up (B.T Bava Batra, 121a Rashbam). The desert generation could not repress their impending doom. Perhaps the way in which they coped will teach us all an important lesson.
The secret lies in the manner in which the Land was to be divided, as described in this week’s portion of Masei, but also harks back to last week’s portion of Pinhas. One verse implies that the Land was to be divided according to the number of people entering it (Numbers 26:53), whereas two verses later, the text implies that the division was based on the numbers of the generation that left Egypt and died in the desert.
The Talmud (B.T. Bava Batra 117a) orchestrates a solution to the apparent contradiction by means of a practical illustration: Reuben and Simeon leave Egypt; Reuben has one son, Simeon has two sons. The three sons who enter the land receive three portions, representing the fact that this is the number of sons who enter the homeland. But in order to give credit to the two fathers who came out of Egypt, the three boys divide their portions in half, with Reuben’s one son receiving a portion and one half, and Simeon’s two sons combining theirs to receive their portion and one half. This prompts Rabbi Yonatan to cry out: “How different is this from any other inheritance; generally the living inherits the dead, whereas here the dead inherit the living!”
The logic of the Talmud is a glory to behold. The narrative of Israel is an unfinished symphony, which began with Abraham and will not conclude until the eventual Redemption of the world. Every generation owes its accomplishments to the foundations established by its forebears. Hence, the generation which left Egypt but did not enter the Promised Land, can likewise share the inheritance of the children.
This is the significance of the teaching in the Passover Haggada: “It is incumbent upon every individual to feel as if he came out of Egypt.” Superficially, such an emotion seems impossible, how can one traverse 4,000 years?
But the first time I sat at the Pessah Seder with my grandchildren and recognized my genetic characteristics – but even more importantly my values and customs – within their words and deeds, I realized how much of me was in them and how much of them was in me. Indeed, I am them and they are me.
At that moment, I ceased being afraid of my mortality, for I realized to what extent it is possible to participate in eternity. As the Talmud says so eloquently: “Father Jacob never died” (Ta’anit 5b). As long as his children and descendents are alive, and following his customs and values, he too is alive.
It is this interpretation which prompted our sages to declare, “Whoever teaches his grandchild Torah is as if he received it from Sinai,” as our sages teach, “The crown of the elders are their grandchildren and the glory of the children are their forebears” (Mishna Avot 6: 8).
And this does not necessitate biological children and grandchildren; anyone who influences the next generation – as a teacher, as an author, as a patron, anyone who makes the continuity of the narrative possible – shares in that eternity. “Spiritual children” can be even more significant than biological children. What is crucial is to be imbued with the desire to preserve our narrative into the next generation.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.