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‘Not one of you shall enter the land in which I had sworn to settle you…’ 14:30)
They rose early in the morning and they went up to the top of the mountain saying, “We are ready – we shall go up to the place that G-d spoke about, for we have (indeed) sinned.”
Moses said, “…Do not go up, for G-d is not with you…”
They defiantly ascended the mountain top… The Amalekite and the Canaanite who lived in the mountain swooped down on them: they struck them and pounded them until Hormah. (extracts from ibid: 40-45)
Following repeated non-co-operation and in this case, proposed mutiny against Moses, the Almighty condemned the Israelites to remain in the wilderness for forty years. But although they were most grieved when they heard the bad news, they did react positively in two ways. Firstly, they were ready to make a desperate lunge to enter the Promised Land, despite the Spies’ reports that it would be an extremely difficult task. Secondly – and for the first time – the Israelites admitted that they were, indeed, in the wrong. With the earlier sin of the Golden Calf, Moses opened his prayer to G-d with the statement that’ ‘this people had greatly sinned’ (Ex. 32:31) – but there is no direct record of the Israelites themselves having regretted what they did. In contrast, the Israelites did openly admit that they had sinned in the case of the Spies.
Thus the aftermath of the sin of the Spies shows some spiritual development within the Israelite people – remorse for transgression, and a considerable degree of faith in making the first moves to conquer the seemingly impenetrable Promised Land. Why did G-d reject their initiatives and repentance? Why did He leave them to suffer at the hands of the Amalekites and the Canaaanites?
The Maggid of Dubno compares the incident of the Spies with a man whose son was offered two matches. One was the daughter of a wealthy man and the other, of a learned and pious rabbi. He actually preferred the rabbi’s daughter, but he stipulated that unless the rabbi himself provided him with costly gifts, he would take the other match for his son. Hearing this, the rabbi refused, stating that even if the father took back his request, he would not allow his son to marry into his family. “I now know that this man does not appreciate my daughter’s background and values, and he would be quiet content for his son to marry into a non-learned background. As such, what do our families have in common?”
Looking at the details of the narrative quoted above, we can see that as although the Israelites did confess their wrongdoings, it was on a very superficial level. They apologized, but that did not constitute real teshuva - penitence. Ezekiel brings the Word of G-d in defining teshuva :
When the wicked person turns away from his wickedness…from all his transgressions… he shall live, and not die… Cast off from yourselves all your transgressions, and gives yourselves a new heart and a new spirit… ‘For I do not desire the death of the wicked,’ says G-d: ‘but he should only repent and live.’” (Ez.18:27-32 – extracts)
The Israelites’ saying, “we have sinned”, was not real teshuva. For at the moment they confessed, they were determined to enter the Promised Land - whether they got the ‘green light’ or not. G-d’s response to them, though Moses, was:
Say to them, “Do not go up, and do not fight, for I am not in your midst.” (Deut. 1:42)
Nevertheless, as the story relates, they defied G-d. But as the narrative relates, the Amalekite and the Canaanite who lived in the mountain swooped down on them: they struck them and pounded them until Hormah.
But the Israelites survived. There is no record in the texts that any of them were actually killed. As Moses himself elaborates in the parallel narrative in Deuteronomy:
Those… who lived in the mountain… chased after you like bees, and they struck you… as far as Hormah. Then you returned and wept before G-d, but He did not listen to your voice, nor did He pay attention to you (Deut. 1:44-5).
Ibn Ezra explains the comparison: the enemy reacted as bees do when someone disturbs the peace of their hive. R. Yosef B’chor Shor – one of the Tosafists – indeed notes that there is no mention of any Israelite casualties: they suffered like victims of bee stings who are in pain, but not fatally injured. Thus G-d responded to their naïve defiance by making a fool of them, by humiliating, rather than killing them.
The Israelites were particularly close to G-d – as the Midrashic tradition states, a maid-servant saw more of G-d through the miracles at the Red Sea than Ezekiel experienced in all his prophecies. On their level, complete and absolute teshuva, of the nature outlined in the Book of Ezekiel, was required. Their teshuva was conditional and spiritually grossly insensitive – ‘Yes – we are sorry – but let us get to the Promised Land and if not, we will take it anyway’. Such behavior was like someone who purifies himself in a mikveh (ritual bath) holding a dead sheretz (insect or crustacean emitting tumah – ritual uncleanliness). That attitude was incompatible with the concept of the Chosen People – in the terms of the Maggid of Dubno, spiritually too coarse to appreciate the benefits of marring into the pious and learned rabbi’s family.
As a footnote: this discussion may be applied to the famous story of the would-be convert who approached Shammai and then Hillel, with view to converting to Judaism – on the condition that he could be taught the Torah whilst standing on one leg. Shamai’s reaction was the normal one – the person wanted to convert, but at the same time he set a condition that could turn the sacred life-long process of learning Torah into a mockery. So he chased him out with his builder’s stick. The Israelites represented the case of those learned in Torah standards, who grievously slipped up, and who had the cheek to ‘repent’ by dictating their own reduced terms to the Almighty. For such people, G-d laughed (c.f. Psalms 2:4), and ‘chased them out with His builder’s stick’ by ‘setting the bees on them’. Hillel, in contrast, distinguished the cases. He saw the prospective proselyte as ignorant, rather than defiant, and recognized that if he was given the snippet of Torah that was appropriate for him - ‘what is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else – the rest is commentary’ – he would indeed ‘go and learn’… And in the case of the Israelites, the learning had to be a full forty years in the wilderness…
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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