The entire book of Bamidbar (Numbers) is comprised of story after story of the Jewish people complaining; they complain about food, about water, about Israel, about leadership, about everything, seemingly, they can think of.
The pattern is a predictable one. There is a complaint. G-d reacts. People die. Rinse and repeat.
And of course, we learn the obvious lessons – that G-d is capable of taking care of us if we put our trust in Him. We learn that we must believe in our own capabilities to achieve the seemingly-impossible, as long as G-d is with us. And we learn a great deal about the kinds of repercussions that fall on us for our misdeeds.
But we must not miss a key point: that the time we spent in the wilderness was actually a mutual learning experience. The Jewish people learned a great deal – but so did Hashem. As a result of our actions at Sinai, for example, G-d learned that we could not, as a nation, handle the strict judgment handed down in the first set of ten commandments. And so Hashem reacted accordingly, with a new set of commandments that emphasized mercy in place of judgment.
I think the single most important thing that G-d learned in the wilderness, through the repeated and incessant complaints of the Jewish people, was that we are not a people that handles boredom well.
Consider: in the wilderness we had all of our material needs taken care of. We did not lack for food or clothing or shelter. We were not seriously threatened by any invaders. We were, in a sense, cocooned by G-d’s presence from the real world. And we, a nation some 2 million strong, had basically nothing to do between the time we built the Mishkan, and when we started the conquest sequence leading to entering the land of Israel.
This was a recipe for disaster, and so it proved. Jews, when bored, get into no end of trouble. This is the repeated pattern in the Torah. Our complaints were not because we really wanted quail or fish or forbidden sexual relations. We did not demand that spies be sent into the Land of Israel because we were really concerned about the best military strategy. We had nothing to do, so we, as a nation worried and fretted. We invented woes, and we escalated minor inconveniences or fears into mass, mob-induced hysteria.
When one sees how often such hysteria led to bloodshed, the obvious question might be: why did the Jews keep getting hysterical? And the answer is that at some level, we preferred the cycle of complaint and death to one of no action whatsoever. If G-d was not going to challenge us, we were going to challenge Him, even if it was obvious at the outset that such challenges were doomed to fail.
So as much as we can learn from these episodes about how to relate to G-d, it is clear from Jewish history that G-d also learned how to relate to us. Not since the wilderness has G-d sheltered us from nature or outsiders, providing our every need. He knows that while we might say that such an arrangement would be wonderful, we actually have almost no tolerance for an existence without challenges, without mountains to climb and tasks to complete.
And so, ever since the wilderness experience, G-d has deliberately and explicitly chosen to interact with all G-d-fearing Jews on a confrontational basis. He does not coddle us, or provide for our every need. We are challenged at every turn, in every imaginable way. It is the nature of our relationship to Him that it never ends. Even the Jew with the greatest relationship in the world to G-d does not live a worry-free existence. We know from the Torah what happens when Jews get bored. So G-d no longer lets that happen.