Children in the Wilderness
We’ve been talking about Wilderness Passages in our individual lives. Today let’s consider a collective passage.
Let’s look at the forty years that the children of Israel spent after fleeing bondage in Egypt.
Do any of these “beats” from their story resonate with your individual passage and mine?
1. The dream of a Promised Land. For the children of Israel, there was a hopeful future, the prospect of a “land of milk and honey”—a new home that was the people’s true home, once the passage was over.
The most painful part of any wilderness passage is the fear that it will never end. We feel that our suffering is meaningless, that we’re going nowhere. The tale of the Exodus promises otherwise, even though the Israelites doubted it time and time again during their ordeal.
2. Depth of suffering. The passage through the wilderness was so long and so hard—forty years—that its privation culled all but two (Joshua and Caleb) of the original generation that set forth from Egypt.
The metaphor, I think, is that the part of us that completes our individual passage has changed mightily from the part that originally set out—and that that original part must fall away before the newly-minted part can achieve completion.
3. Many times, the people chickened out. Despite receiving heaven’s promise, the Israelites’ nerve failed them on numerous occasions. Starving in the wilderness, the children rebelled against Moses and Aaron. The people wanted to go back to Pharoah, to the safety of their chains.
4. Divine intervention saved them, also multiple times. The parting of the Red Sea, manna from heaven, etc.
Like Odysseus protected by the goddess Athena, heavenly grace many times saved the day.
5. In the end, Moses—who had started it all and whom the Lord of Hosts honored beyond all others—was forbidden to enter the Promised Land. The conventional explanation for this (Moses’ pride in striking the rock with his staff to bring forth water for the people) has never completely rung true to me. Yet, on some ironic level, the Almighty’s proscription rings a bell. Like Martin Luther King’s, “I might not get there with you …”, this seems to be a tragic but necessary element to the story.
What could this mean for us as individuals on our passage? That our inner “leader,” our King archetype, must step aside at the moment of triumph? That he or she may open the gate for another part of ourselves but not, himself or herself, pass through?
It’s fascinating to me the way such collective passages mirror the stages and stations of our individual journeys in myth, legend, and fiction … and in our real lives.
There’s always an Ejection, an Ordeal, a falling-away of one part and the birth of another. And there’s a Promised Land at the end, where the entity—collective or individual—at last achieves an authenticity and a self-identity that was there all along but that had never, until then, been able to bring itself forth.