Our sedra features the tragic story of Bnai Yisrael sending prominent leaders as spies to Eretz Yisrael on G-d’s command, and those spies giving a bad report on the land. G-d immediately calls to Moshe, threatening to destroy this nation once and for all.
Upon hearing this, Moshe cries back to G-d:
וְעַתָּה יִגְדַּל־נָא כֹּחַ אֲדֹנָי כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ לֵאמֹר. ה’ אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב־חֶסֶד נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפָשַׁע וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל־בָּנִים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִים (במדבר יד:יז-יח)
Quoting almost verbatim from Hashem’s י”ג מידות הרחמים, Moshe pleads to G-d for mercy, to show His מידת הרחמים. However, more astute readers may notice that the Jewish leader misses a few of the 13 attributes of mercy. Ramban addresses each of these discreaencies- let’s read how he explains the omission of the mida of “נוצר חסד לאלפים”:
ולא הזכיר “נוצר חסד לאלפים”, כי לא בזכות אבות נתפלל משה עכשיו ולא הזכיר בתפילה הזאת לאברהם ליצחק וליעקב כלל. והטעם בעבור שהארץ ניתנה לאבות ומהם ירשוה, והם מורדים באבותם ולא היו חפצים במתנה שלהם אשר האבות היו בוחרים בה מאד, והיאך יאמר “אשר נשבעת להם בך וגו’ וכל הארץ הזאת אתן לזרעכם” (שמות לב יג) והם אומרים אי אפשנו במתנה זו:
And he didn’t mention “נוצר חסד לאלפים,” because Moshe did not pray in the merit of the forefathers- he didn’t mention Avraham, Yitzchak or Yaakov at all. The reason for this is because the land of Israel was given to our forefathers to pass on as an inheritance, and their descendants rebelled against their fathers, and did not want the gift that the Avot so greatly desired. How could Moshe once again pray “that you promised to them… and this entire land will be given to your descendants” (Shemot 32:12), if the people had just clearly said “we don’t want this gift”?! (רמב”ן שם)
Nachmanides answers very simply that Moshe did not include the ninth trait of mercy, “נוצר חסד לאלפים,” at this time because it is representative of the merit of the Jewish Avot. At a time when Am Yisrael had clearly rejected their national inheritance, which Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov had worked so hard to preserve for their descendants, they could no longer rely on their forefathers’ zechut to be saved, so Moshe did not bother mentioning it in his passionate prayer to Hashem.
Rav Yissachar Shlomo Teichtel, in Em Habanim Semecha, quotes this teaching of the Ramban and learns an even deeper message from it.
I’ve already explained earlier what the Medrash Tanchuma (Re’eh 8) explains on the word of Yirmiyahu: “‘I will give you a desirable land’- the land that your forefathers desired their entire lives; Avraham desired it, Yitzchak desired it, and Yaakov desired it.” As I brought there proofs from these pesukim.
And now, we can say that this is the purpose of the passuk and the Midrash, that the Torah revealed to us here exactly what the Merit of our Forefathers is. If we will cling to their traits of desiring and loving Eretz Yisrael, just as they did we also will do- then Hashem will “remember” their merit. This is what the passuk says “and I will remember my covenant with Yaakov,” but only on condition of “and the land will be remembered”- this is the love of the land.
And this is also what the Midrash says: “Whenever Hashem remembers the forefathers, He remembers the land with them”… According to our love of our Holy Land will the Merit of our Forefathers grow. (אם הבנים שמחה פרק ג:עמ’ קצח-ט)
Rav Teichtel closes the circle and brings the Ramban’s point home. Eretz Yisrael is our forefathers’ inheritance and gift to us. It represents an embodiment of their deepest and most important goals- Avraham’s of seeking out the land and keeping it as an inheritance, Yitzchak’s of pursuing peace there through negotiations and through war, and Yaakov’s of returning from his exile, and settling there for good. זכות אבות, the merit which has saved our people countless times throughout history from danger, is as deeply connected to the Holy Land as our forefathers were and still are. Anyone who doesn’t desire or cling to Eretz Yisrael, as they did, demonstrates that he is not really a descendant of Avraham, Yitzchak nor Yaakov, and cannot count on their merit in his time of need.
It’s very interesting that both Ramban and Rav Teichtel quote the passuk of “וזכרתי את בריתי יעקב” in their explanation of the importance of זכות אבות. This verse, originating from the end of the tochacha, is the beginning of the “silver lining” of the admonition, where G-d explains that He will never let our people be destroyed forever. Since this promise begins with Hashem remembering His covenant with Yaakov, Yitzchak and Avraham, and Him remembering the Land of Israel, it would not be a stretch to say that one who does not desire Eretz Yisrael and thereby abandons his זכות אבות, would lose G-d’s promise of “ואף גם זאת,” that He will never let us be destroyed. I believe that history has demonstrated this is correct- allow me to elaborate:
Think back to the Twentieth Century. The Zionist movement began with small-time journalist Theodor Herzl witnessing the blatant Anti-Semitism at the Dreyfus Trial. His indignation at the mistreatment of his brother caused this Jew, who had never so much as davened before, to put into motion a plan to fulfill Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov’s dream of returning home, of controlling their own destiny.
Herzl and his secular Zionists approached the religious Jewish leaders of Europe and asked for their assistance and support in creating a Jewish State. ” עָלֹה נַעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ–כִּי-יָכוֹל נוּכַל, לָהּ- Let’s go up to Eretz Yisrael now- we can overcome the challenge and succeed there,” they declared. The latter refused to help, fearing for the fate of Torah Jewry in a state run in cooperation with their less observant brethren. ” לֹא נוּכַל לַעֲלוֹת אֶל-הָעָם כִּי-חָזָק הוּא, מִמֶּנּוּ- We can’t go to Eretz Yisrael with this nation (the secular Zionists)- the challenge (of living with them) is too difficult for us.” They put this small concern of the risk of religious influence ahead of the endgame of fulfilling our forefathers’ life mission, and refused to join, telling their disciples terrible reports about the danger of living in Eretz Yisrael that are very much similar to the ones of the meraglim.
The result? Less than thirty years later, those leaders and their congregations in Europe were among the six million slaughtered by Hitler and the Germans, and a secular state of Israel was born. Jews whose entire lives were dedicated to עבודת השם ended up dying in the Shoah, their only sin that they very understandably believed their leaders’ דיבות רעה on Eretz Yisrael just as Bnai Yisrael did in Parshat Shelach. Nonetheless, this may have been enough to lose זכות אבות, and die a terrible death in the concentration camps, while their less observant brethren, who pushed forward and followed the Avot’s mission, came away with their lives and a self-sovereign state. We can surely see from here the power of זכות אבות and the danger of losing it if we forget about our נחלה.
In our times, we are faced with a similar challenge. Every single day, Jews attempt to disseminate דיבות רעה on Eretz Yisrael. Some follow in the same mistakes as European Jewish leaders- despite the obvious sucess of מדינת ישראל, they complain about the religious and physical dangers there, attempting to dissuade persuadable Jews from following in Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov’s footsteps. On the other hand, others forget the religious narrative entirely, and attempt to give a bad name to Israel by painting our attackers, the so-called Palestinians, in a positive light, telling terrible falsehoods about war crimes, economical inequalities, and human rights violations. Some, in the camps of JStreet and JVP (Jewish Voice for Peace), as well as the polar opposite Neturei Karta extremist group, even have to audacity to partner with our enemies, the monsters who have the blood of thousands of Jews on their hands. How could these misled individuals possibly have any זכות אבות left in them as they work every single day to undo the life goals of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, hand in hand with the terrorists who plot our nation’s destruction every single day?!!
It is very clear that, with the recent advent of Anti-Semitism thinly veiled as pro-Palestinian, anti-Occupation activism, it will not be safe to be a Jew for much longer anywhere in the world- not even in the United States. There will come a time when, just like in the 1930’s, anti-Jewish bias will become so popular that the Jews of the Golah, who had not gotten away in time, will begin to be subjugated again (as has already begun in France, UK, and most European countries). The world’s Muslim population is getting too big to ignore, and most of the nations of the world want us gone anyways- they’ve just been too afraid to admit it until now.
At that time, each and every one of us will have to make a decision. We will need to ask ourselves how important being Jewish is to us, and if we are truly descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. History has shown us that when things get tough, even a demographic of Am Yisrael that has not practiced Judaism, will still be saved if they align their life mission with that of our forefathers- this is enough to earn זכות אבות. Now imagine what would happen if religious Jews such as ourselves, doing mitzvot since age zero, would do the same- if we would embrace our forefather’s goals and work to return home to Eretz Yisrael. Surely G-d will save us from our enemies if we do this.
With the brewing storm of Anti-Semitism still on the horizon, now is the time for action. Each and every one of us can make a difference, even those who are not yet ready to move home to Eretz Yisrael. The first step is to plan to move there, to ensure compliance with the life goals of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov (remember that the latter forefather took over 20 years to eventually return home from the Exile). Next, is to work hard against the דיבות רעות that our fellow Jews speak against Israel. This doesn’t mean fighting the BDS and other fascist, Anti-Semitic organizations directly- no matter what, they will succeed in the end at imposing sanctions on Israel and sullying her good name, because that’s what the world wants so no one will really try to stop them. All it requires is working hard to ensure that our fellow Jews don’t buy into their perspective- making sure that our brethren will have a fighting chance when bad times hit, that they’ll have זכות אבות.
The Jewish People who left Egypt were punished by dying out in the desert because only two of their leaders stood up for the Land of Israel- imagine what would have happened if they all had; perhaps the Jews would have gone straight to Eretz Yisrael without any more deaths or punishment.
We need to be the Yehoshua and Calev’s of our generation, standing up to the evil reports of our brethren on both sides of the spectrum against Israel. We need to strengthen the voice of reason among our brethren, calling out “עָלֹה נַעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ–כִּי-יָכוֹל נוּכַל, לָהּ” together as one. If we can work hard to fight these דיבות רעות, and encourage all of our fellow Jews to embrace and desire Eretz Yisrael, even if they can’t make the move yet, then, with Hashem’s help and in the זכות אבות, we will merit to be saved from our enemies and to bring the Mashiach very soon.