The Torah in Bamidbar (9:1-5) informs us that in the second year after their exodus from Egypt the B’nei Yisrael observed the Pesach (Passover) holiday in all its detail as Hashem had commanded. Since according to Halachah a male cannot bring a Korban Pesach (the Passover sacrifice) unless he has had a bris milah (a ritual circumcision), that meant that all the males at that point in the history of Klal Yisroel were circumcised. Incredibly, it would be another thirty-eight years before Klal Yisroel would once again attain that state. The Talmud in Yevamos (71b-72a) based on a passage from the book of Yehoshua (Joshua) (5:2-11) explains that the Jews by-and-large did not perform bris milah during the many years that they were travelling in the midbar.
The Talmud offers a reason as to why they were exempt from circumcision while they were in the midbar. Travelling through a desert is not an easy task (even with the Clouds of Glory to protect you), and it left the people in a weakened condition. There was a concern that undergoing circumcision would be too dangerous if the recuperation period occurred while they were travelling.*
The Sifri makes the point that since many, if not most, of the Jewish men who travelled in the midbar were not circumcised that meant that for those thirty-eight years Klal Yisroel as a whole did not bring the Korban Pesach which as was noted previously can only be brought by those who are circumcised. These two mitzvohs, Milah and Pesach, are arguably the two most important rituals commanded by Hashem. They are the only ones that carry the penalty of kahreis, soul-death. The fact that the Jews of the midbar were not able to perform either of these mitzvohs was a very serious religious issue, and it caused them deep embarrassment (see Yehoshua 5:9).
There is, however, one glaring inconsistency with this entire narrative. A study of the travels of the Jews in the midbar will show that there were many instances in which they encamped for extended periods of time. For instance, they stayed in a place called Kadesh for nineteen years! (see Devarim 1:46, Rashi) Why, then, did they not at least do Bris Milah and the Korban Pesach during those nineteen years? After all, they were not weak from travelling. This would seem to be an obvious question on the reason given above.
The answer to this question involves another passage from this week’s Parsha. In Bamidbar 9:18-23, the Torah describes Klal Yisroel’s travels through the desert:
According to the word of Hashem would the Children of Israel journey, and according to the word of Hashem would they encamp; all the days that the cloud would rest upon the Tabernacle (Mishkan) they would encamp…. Sometimes the cloud would be upon the Tabernacle for a number of days; according to the word of Hashem would they encamp and according to the word of Hashem would they journey. And sometimes the cloud would remain from evening until morning, and the cloud would be lifted in the morning and they would journey. Or for two days, or a month, or a year, when the cloud would linger over the Tabernacle, resting upon it, the Children of Israel would encamp and would not journey, but when it was lifted they would journey….
Reading this passage, the answer to our question becomes quite clear. Every day during those nineteen years B’nei Yisroel did not know if that would be the day that they would begin their travels again. They could never plan to have the stretch of time needed to recuperate from circumcision because Hashem never told them what the next day would bring. The cloud would lift without warning and they would go – according to the word of Hashem would they encamp and according to the word of Hashem would they journey.
One can only imagine the difficulty that the Jews in the midbar must have faced in fighting their natural cravings for independence and self-reliance, and for the security that comes from putting down roots and gathering savings. How much effort it must have taken for a Jew who lived during that time not to turn to Hashem and say, “Hashem, at the risk of sounding insolent, I would like to ask a question. The Almighty knew we were going to be here for nineteen years. Couldn’t The Almighty have at least told us? Why were we kept in the dark, always wondering if today would be the day that the cloud would finally be lifted from the Mishkan and we would have to break camp? If The Almighty had told us, we would have been able to unpack our bags and make our tents into nice places to live. We could have done Bris Milah and brought the Korban Pesach, but we didn’t because we were always afraid that maybe we would have to start travelling again before we healed. And Hashem, may I ask one more thing? Why can’t we be given a week’s worth of mon (manna) instead of having just enough for each day. That way we wouldn’t have to worry about tomorrow?”
Good questions. Why, indeed, was it so important to Hashem to keep them in the dark that He was willing to forgo thirty-eight years of Jewish babies having bris milah and thirty-eight years of Pesach offerings? Why did Hashem have to make them feel so insecure about their future?
B’nei Yisroel’s forty-year experience knowing clearly that all control of their lives was in the all-powerful hands of Hashem made them realize that all that matters is their relationship with Him. In the desert, awareness of the complete and total benevolence of the Almighty’s Divine Will was drilled into the collective Jewish psyche. Security does not depend on stable global economies, or the absence of malicious world leaders, or the consistency of the climates. It does not depend on how many securities (a telling word choice, no?) are in the portfolio. It depends on only one thing; on your relationship with Hashem, knowing deep down in your soul that He will never leave you and you will never leave Him. It is the only true kind of security one can have. Klal Yisroel learned from their desert training that securities and security are not identical, and for many people they may even be opposites.
There is no greater lesson that can be learned than this. It’s worth more than anything else, including Bris Milah and the Pesach sacrifice. In the words of the Vilna Gaon (Proverbs 22:19), “The main reason for the giving of the Torah to Klal Yisroel is in order that they should place their security in Hashem…. because the main point of everything is to completely rely on Hashem, and that is the purpose of all the mitzvohs.”
* A second opinion regarding this issue is quoted in the Talmud. It involves an interesting phenomenon that occurred during the B’nei Yisroel’s forty years in the midbar. It seems that the Clouds of Glory that protected the Jews were susceptible to being dispersed by the strong north wind that blew in the desert. Because of this, Hashem diminished the north wind in order to keep the clouds in their place (see the Radak in Yehoshua 5:2 for a discussion as to why Hashem did not see fit to miraculously maintain the clouds in their position despite the wind). The Talmud according to Rashi’s commentary explains that the north wind, which is the strongest of the winds, has the beneficial effect of dispersing the clouds in the sky and thus allowing the sun to shine. So, though the diminishing of the north wind was needed in order to keep the Clouds of Glory in their place, there definitely was a down-side to it. Without a strong north wind, the B’nei Yisroel consistently experienced cloudy days. The Jews in the midbar considered this lack of sunshine to be a serious health concern, especially for someone who after surgery would be in need of the sun’s healing effects. Therefore, they were forced to refrain from performing the potentially life-threatening circumcision procedure.