Why did Israel have to wander so long in the desert? True, “G‑d did not lead them in a straight path [to Canaan] through the land of the Philistines, because the people might change their mind when they saw war.”1 But why forty years? It does not take that long, even by their circuitous route through the wilderness; in fact, the Israelites encamped at Kadesh for a period of nineteen years. Obviously, it was not a question of a certain route.

Forty years’ wandering was Israel’s punishment, “measure for measure,” for the forty days’ journey of the spies in the Holy Land, after which they brought back an evil report. But the punishment was mainly that they should not enter the Holy Land for another forty years—which they could have spent in an inhabited place. Why the desert?

But the entire purpose of Israel’s wandering in the desert was to transform it, to turn the desolate wilderness into a human habitation. What does “human habitation” mean? It can be a village of two families, or a town of millions. From the Torah’s perspective, the highest, most perfect level of human habitation is achieved when a community of 600,000 Jews gathers in one place. This is a mystical number. It is the number of the “general souls” of the Jewish nation. It is the “core number” of those who left Egypt (i.e., the army of the Children of Israel, adult males over the age of 20). It is the highest level of community, representing the greatest variety of Jews of different backgrounds, social levels, etc. When 600,000 of Israel gather, a special blessing is recited. Less than 600,000 is not the perfect community; more than that number adds nothing.

The 600,000 Israelites, just by virtue of their inhabiting the wilderness, transformed the desolation into a human habitation—a Jewish community—of the highest order; and this transformation extended even to the physical aspects of the desert. The snakes and scorpions were miraculously destroyed by the clouds of glory; the water from Miriam’s well (which miraculously rolled along with them) gave rise to fruits and vegetation—the antithesis of wilderness.

In a spiritual sense, wilderness is “where man does not dwell.”2 On the highest level this refers to Adam HaElyon (“Supernal Man”)—G‑d. One who finds himself in such a state must transform the desert into a place where G‑d dwells.

For example, a newlywed couple are about to go out into the “desolate wilderness” of the world. In this spiritual desert they must establish a Jewish home, a human habitation of the highest order, an “Israelite encampment” that will eventually transform the surrounding desert into a habitation for G‑dliness.3