Sometimes in life, we feel like we are just treading water. We barely keep our heads above and struggle to make any progress towards our goals. Above all else, we think that every day is the same, that we're always just repeating the same actions. I heard once from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin that this week's parsha is a bit like that. G-d instructs Moshe and Elazar to count the Jewish people, just as he did Moshe and Aharon thirty-eight years ago, and when they make the count, they discover the numbers haven't changed much. There are the same roughly 600,000 Jewish men of fighting age that there were before the spies' sin and the sojourn in the desert. It feels like nothing has changed and been achieved; the previous four decades were for nothing.
Indeed, Rabbi Riskin thought the Jewish people had regressed over the thirty-eight years. In the first count, each man's father, grandfather, and ancestors extended back to Ya'akov's twelve sons were mentioned. Here, only each man's father appears. Over the ensuing period, the people of Israel became less engaged with the past, less rooted in their history.
However, there is a new strength here as well. While the Israelites were less rooted, they were also more ready for the changing world they were about to enter. Up to now, Hashem spared them the vicissitudes of trying to make their way in an inconstant and unreliable world. They didn't need to worry about sudden emergencies or new circumstances. Their existence was enabled and limited by G-d's provision for all their material needs, gratis. Upon entering the land, the Children of Israel must contend with the real world. This requires less introspection and more readiness to act. As the Jews re-enter the world around them, they must also reengage with their future, not just their past, which might require keeping less of their history in mind daily.
Throughout Jewish history, this tension has found expression. On the one hand, we are a traditional people rooted in the past. On the other hand, we are a people of destiny advancing into our future. So which is it?
The balance between these two poles switches and changes over time. Circumstances sometimes force us to look more to the past or more to the future. As our historical journey continues, let us hope we continue to find our way, sometimes focusing more on the precedent set by those who came before us and sometimes charting a new and different course.