One of the most striking elements of Bamidbar is how the same stories that we read in Shemot play out differently in this book. After a year in the desert, G-d is no longer infatuated with Israel and Israel learns to discover G-d’s compassion in the midst of real life. Now, G-d who had forborn sins compassionately is G-d the angry.
In Shemot 17:1-6 the people found themselves without water after having journeyed in the wilderness of Sin to Rephidim and in Bamidbar 20:1-8 the people found themselves without water after having journeyed to Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. In both cases the people complained “Why have you brought us from Egypt to kill us, to this wretched place”? While in Shemot G-d was still happy to simply have Moses strike the rock and provide the people with water, in Bamidbar G-d wanted Moses to speak to the rock so that the people would realize that the water comes from G-d. Even when Moses did discuss the rock in front of the people and did point out that the rock will give water to the rebellious people through a miracle, G-d got angry at Moses for not revealing G-d’s gift more fully by not hitting the rock. In Shemot 16:2 the people in the desert of Sin complained that they have no food and are starving for meat. G-d grants them not only a daily bread-substitute, manna, but also daily quail. In Bamidbar 11:4, the people in the desert are starving for meat although they still have manna. G-d angrily provides quail and kills a multitude with the meat. In Shemot 16:27 some people went to collect manna on Shabbat, and G-d is peeved but does nothing other than rebuke and repeat the commandment to rest from all work on Shabbat. In Bamidbar 15:32 an individual is found gathering wood on Shabbat – for cooking or baking the manna (Bamidbar 11:8) and G-d commands the execution of the man.
Throughout these stories, the people are also not in the same emotional place that they were in during the stories of Shemot. In both books they complain the same complaints, but in Shemot they still appreciated what they received while in Bamidbar they were frustrated by the recurring process of lack and provision. For example: in Shemot the “white like coriander seed” manna “tasted like wafers made with honey” while in Bamidbar the manna that was “like coriander seed” both “looked like resin” and “tasted like something made with oil”. In other words: not only do the people experience that life (i.e. G-d) does not provide them with the basics they seek and even strikes them hard when they demand the basics, the people are also no longer able to appreciate those basics that they do have.
Like any story that is true to life, the Torah does not have a magical answer. The Torah does provide guidance, however. Aside from teaching us that our mistakes, sins, and disgruntledness carry increasing prices as the years pass – that there are real life consequences to not growing up and becoming better people – Bamidbar provides an answer of grace. Although it would be ideal if each of us could be purely appreciative of life and without sin, Bamidbar provides an additional option for our mortal selves. In the midst of plague, Aaron lights sweet smelling spices in the midst of the camp before G-d (Bamidbar 16:47-48) and the plague is halted. There will be further catastrophes and all the people of that generation will die in unmarked graves in the desert. But, and this is the most critical but, Moses and Aaron had modeled how to experience life as more than endless devastation. They taught us that when we pause and offer the aromas of life unto G-d, our mortality pauses too. Then, we can even experience ourselves temporarily as the new generation that enters the Land of Israel with renewed hopes and visions – the book of Devarim.