The forty wilderness years between Egypt and the Promised Land were obviously a time of great trial for our ancestors. Having to endure an inhospitable climate, an unpleasant terrain and a constant shortage of water was – literally – no picnic. It sounds like a bad joke that the Midrash says that the Almighty gave us a series of precious gifts in the wilderness.
The view of the Alexandrian philosopher Philo, mirroring his materialistic milieu, was that the most precious Divine gift was that our forefathers were kept away from the crime and corruption that come with urban society, since once they settled in the Land and built cities, they faced alluring temptations which they often could not handle and which the prophets later trenchantly criticised.
Another view sees the desert as symbolic of the ups and downs of life. Things never go smoothly all the time, and people have to face up to adversity whilst never losing faith that one day they will reach the Promised Land.
In addition one can and must always try to fulfil the vision of Isaiah, “The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose” (Isa. 35:1). David Ben Gurion is said to have remarked on a visit to the United States, “I envy you your deserts – not just because they are deserts, but because you can afford to keep them deserts”.