“Instant Gratification” Parashat Shelach 5774

It was one of the most horrific sins ever committed by Am Yisrael, a sin whose consequences are so far-reaching that we are still paying for them today[1]. Spies are sent to reconnoiter the land in preparation for war. They return and tell the people that invasion is not only futile, it is a death sentence. The people, nearing revolt, tell Moshe to turn the car around and to take them back to Egypt. Hashem punishes all those over the age of twenty, sentencing them to death in the desert. Everyone else is sentenced to forty years of wandering. Immediately after the sentence is given, a group of people, the ma’apilim, confess their sins, whole-heartedly repent, and offer to invade the land of Israel, right there and right then. Moshe tells them to stand down because they are doomed to fail but they disregard his warnings. They head into battle without Moshe’s support and they are soundly defeated.

The Midrash teaches that it is never too late, even on the day of death, to return to Hashem with sincere repentance for “as the sea is always open for everyone who wishes to cleanse himself, so are the gates of repentance always open to the sinner”. Why didn’t Hashem accept the repentance of the ma’apilim? Multiple commentators[2] have made multiple suggestions, but nearly all of these suggestions look for shortcomings in the repentance of the ma’apilim – they didn’t whole-heartedly repent, they disobeyed Moshe, or something along those lines. According to the Artscroll Chumash, the ma’apilim were “too late. The door to repentance had irreversibly closed”. Doesn’t this fly in the face of the Midrash that asserts that the door is always open?

These explanations ignore an even greater question: When Am Yisrael commit the sin of listening and acting upon the words of the spies, Hashem tells Moshe that enough is enough and that He is going to destroy them, leaving Moshe to lead a new nation. Moshe prays to Hashem and the decree is averted. But when Hashem proceeds to sentence them to a slow death in the desert, Moshe is silent. Why doesn’t Moshe pray to Hashem to rescind this decree as well? Forty years later, when Hashem punishes Moshe for his own sin and tells him that he, too, will die in the desert, Moshe heaps prayer upon prayer[3] on Hashem in an attempt to convince Him to change His mind. Is it possible that when Hashem sentences 600,000 men to a similar fate that Moshe is silent?

A point that has been made numerous times in these shiurim is that Hashem always tries to punish “mida k’neged mida” – with a punishment that fits the crime. But the best kind of punishment is one that addresses the root of the sin and serves as a learning experience. This kind of punishment is called “Tikkun ha’chet” – “Rectification of the sin”. I suggest that the punishment of wandering for forty years in the desert was Tikkun ha’chet. The question is: Which particular sin was being rectified? The obvious answer to this question is “The sin of listening to the spies”. However, if we open our aperture a bit wider, we will see that this sin is only part of a much longer story.

The sin of the spies transpires about a year after the exodus from Egypt. Seven days after Am Yisrael leave Egypt they find themselves at the shore of the Red Sea with the Egyptian Army closing in on their flank. Their reaction: they cry out to Moshe [Shemot 14:11] “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What have you done to us to take us out of Egypt?” Their lives are in danger, and their leader seems to be doing nothing to remedy the situation. Hashem saves the day by splitting the sea and drowning the Egyptians. Am Yisrael cross the sea and for three days they do not find water. Again they vent their anger at Moshe. Again Hashem saves the day, this time by magically sweetening a pool of undrinkable water. A few days later Am Yisrael want meat and [Shemot 16:3] they accuse Moshe of taking them out of Egypt to kill them with famine. After all, they’ve been on the road for nearly two weeks. Hashem listens to their demands, this time giving them the miraculous manna. Note that even though all of Am Yisrael’s complaints are valid, there is a pattern developing here: The nation wants something, they cry, and their need is addressed.

One month later Moshe ascends Mount Sinai. He tells Am Yisrael that he will be there for forty days. When Moshe fails to return on the appointed day the people fear that he has died and they look for a replacement – a golden calf. The Midrash explains that Am Yisrael miscalculated and assumed that the day Moshe ascended the mountain was considered the first day. They did not understand that he would be away for forty complete days. The result is that because they could not wait for twenty-four hours, they committed the worst sin in the history of the Jewish People. But even though the extent of their sin was extraordinary, the fact that they sinned should have come as no surprise. Am Yisrael required instant gratification. They lacked the maturity to postpone their need to satisfy their desire. Had they waited, Hashem would have split the sea. He would have given them food and water. Moshe would have come down the mountain. They were the child who comes home from two hours of basketball / hockey / cricket and yells “I’m hungry, Mom!” only to hear “Dinner is already on the table! Where have you been?”

When Moshe sent the spies, Am Yisrael had already had enough of the desert. They wanted to begin their lives in the Land of Israel, under their grape vines and under their fig trees. However, the spies return and report that the enemy is well-armed and that the invasion and capture of Israel will not happen overnight. This is Hashem testing them. Do they possess the patience necessary to undertake the arduous process of seizing the land from its inhabitants and then building it up in their own image? Unfortunately they were not yet ready. Their punishment of wandering in the desert for forty years was to inculcate them with the concept of patience. So no matter how hard they repented the punishment could not be rescinded. The ma’apilim act like classic Am Yisrael. They want the land now. And so they must fail or the wrong lesson will be taught.

Immediately after Am Yisrael receive their sentence, they receive two mitzvot: the mitzvah of libations (nesachim) and the mitzvah of taking challah. The mitzvah of libations begins with the words [Bemidbar 15:2] “When you enter (ki ta’vo’u) the land…” The mitzvah of challah begins with similar and yet different words [Bemidbar 15:18] “When you arrive (bevo’achem) in the land…” Hashem is sending a clear message: Even though you will not enter the land, one day your children will. The Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin [37b] notes the slightly different wording in the two mitzvot and teaches that the mitzvah of libations must be performed as soon as Am Yisrael cross the border into Israel while the mitzvah of challah will only become pertinent after the land has been allocated and settled. That would take another fourteen years. This was another message that was equally clear: Even after you enter Israel, there is still much more work to be done. But even that wasn’t even the end of the line. It would be hundreds of years, until the dawn of the monarchy and the ascent of David to the throne, that the entire Land of Canaan would truly be the uncontested inheritance of the Jewish people.

The modern State of Israel is sixty-six years old. While I firmly believe that the modern state marks the “Dawn of our Deliverance”, I know that we are nowhere near the finish line. Here is a song my children sing: “Am ha’netzach lo mefached mi’derech arucha” – “The eternal nation does not fear a long road”. Let’s not make the same mistake the spies did.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5774


[1]Am Yisrael cried after hearing the words of the spies. The Midrash in Bemidbar Raba teaches that this crying for no reason was punished by eternal crying – the crying on Tisha b’Av.

[2]See, for instance, the commentary of the Or HaChayim HaKadosh ad loc.

[3]According to the Midrash, Moshe prayed 515 prayers – the gematria of the word Va’et’chanan.