The Book of Devarim can be roughly divided into three parts: Part I is a brief recap of the forty years in which the Jewish People wandered in the desert after the Egyptian exodus, Part II is an assortment of commandments, and Part III is an exhortation to keep the Torah. One of the first episodes recapped in Part I is the episode of the spies. Moshe sends twelve men to reconnoitre the Land of Canaan in preparation for war. The spies return with a report asserting that any attempt to capture the land would be a suicide mission. The people are terrified and they demand to return to Egypt. G-d swoops in and punishes everyone between the ages of twenty and sixty, sentencing them to die in the desert. The nation, upon hearing their punishment, undergo a swift change of heart and set out to capture the land. Moshe tells them that this is a suicide mission but they are undeterred. They charge into battle against the Amorites and are summarily routed [Devarim 1:44]: “The Amorites who lived in those hills came out against you like so many bees and chased you, and they crushed you”.
Moshe’s recap of this episode concludes with a bizarre verse [Devarim 1:45]: “You returned (va’tashuvu) and wept before G-d, but G-d would not hear your voice, nor would He listen to you.” The word “returned” can assume a number of meanings. On one hand, “returned” can mean that the soldiers physically returned from battle. They fought on the hilltops and they returned to the camp, defeated and dejected. On the other hand, noting that the words “va’tashuvu” and “teshuva (repentance)” come from the same root, “returned” could mean that the people repented. Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, known as the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, who lived in Morocco in the first half of the eighteenth century, prefers the second translation, as it explains why they returned specifically “before G-d”: “We must assume therefore that what Moshe is telling us is that only after the defeat by the Amorites did the Israelites finally decide to humble themselves before G-d, becoming penitents.” Only after they had been defeated and only after they realized that their death sentence was irreversible did they understand that they had sinned. Only then did they understand that they needed to repent. What is bizarre about this verse is that G-d completely and entirely rejects their repentance, even though they were moved to tears. The Talmud in Tractate Berachot [32b] states that “After the Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash) has been destroyed, the Gates of Prayer have been closed. And yet even though the Gates of Prayer have been closed, the Gates of Tears are never closed.” Why does G-d not accept their repentance? Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, who lived in Italy in the first half of the sixteenth century, proposes a number of reasons: One reason is that by suggesting that G-d could not defeat the Canaanites, their sin involved the desecration of G-d’s name. The Talmud in Tractate Yoma [86a] teaches that a sin that involves the desecration of G-d’s name can never be expiated as long as the sinner remains alive because his mere existence is a constant reminder of his sin. A second reason that G-d could not forgive the Jewish People is because the decree of wandering in the desert was given as a Divine vow that could never be retracted. In another location, the Seforno suggests a third reason, that because the Jewish People had cursed G-d for bringing them into the desert in the first place, their sin belonged in a class of unforgiveable sins.
Another way in which this verse is bizarre is that the original as-it-happened episode in the Book of Bemidbar makes no explicit mention of tears and/or repentance. The original as-it-happened episode concludes with a description of the crushing defeat of the Jewish People [Bemidbar 14:45]: “The Amalekites and the Canaanites who dwelt in that hill country came down and dealt them a shattering blow”. And then the Torah then segues to the next topic, that of sacrificial libations. Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel in the thirteenth century, notes this discrepancy and comments, “Scripture did not mention this weeping, for there was no need to mention it. But Moshe mentioned it now as praise that they regretted their sin, and to tell them that [even though they had repented,] this sin was too great to forgive”.
A short comment by Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, known as the Hizkuni, who lived in France in the thirteenth century, exposes a new line of sight. The Hizkuni states that Moshe’s words “You returned and wept” are his recapitulation of a verse in the original as-it-happened episode that appears immediately after the Jewish People are told that they will die in the desert [Bemidbar 14:3]: “When Moshe repeated these words to all the Israelites, the people grieved excessively.” According to the Hizkuni, their grief was a sign of their contrition and the first step of their repentance. The innovation of the Hizkuni is echoed in the commentary of Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac Bekhor Shor, who lived in France during the second half of the twelfth century. He explains that by grieving, the Jewish people showed that they understood that they had forsaken G-d rather than trusting in Him. They appreciated the dimensions of their punishment and they experienced a crushing sense of loss.
Let us continue further down this path. The Jewish People grieved because something had been taken from them. Precisely what had they lost? Obviously, they had lost their right to enter the Land of Israel. But they had lost something much more: They had lost G-d’s presence. The Talmud in Tractate Ta’anit [30b] teaches that for the thirty-eight years during which the Jewish People spent wandering in the desert, G-d maintained radio silence. He did not speak even once with Moshe. He concealed His Divine Presence. Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, who lived in Pinsk and in Jerusalem in the previous century, writing in “Oznayim LaTorah”, compares the grief after the sin of spies with the grief experienced after the sin of the Golden Calf (egel), when G-d tells the people that He will retract His Divine Presence from their midst [Shemot 33:4]: “The nation heard this evil tiding and they grieved”. Why, asks Rabbi Sorotzkin, did the Jewish People “grieve excessively (me’od)” after the sin of the spies while they merely “grieved” after the sin of the egel? He answers that when G-d retracted His Divine Presence after the sin of the egel, he sent an angel to lead his people. G-d’s presence was still present, albeit hidden by veils. After the sin of the spies, however, He left them completely in the dark. Alone and blind, they grieved until they could grieve no more.
With trepidation, I suggest that the reason that G-d did not retract His punishment to wander in the desert was in order to teach the Jewish People that there are two ways to experience G-d: When G-d splits the sea and drowns the Egyptians, when Moshe raises his hands and defeats the Amalekites, when Iron Dome intercepts ninety percent of four thousand rockets fired on Israeli towns, G-d’s Divine Presence is eminent. These things don’t just happen. While seeing G-d through victory is trivial, seeing G-d through defeat is infinitely more challenging. When a standing army of six hundred thousand men is thoroughly routed by Amorite Bedouins, it should serve as a clear indication of Divine supervision. These things don’t just happen. And yet the Jewish people grieve – excessively. They do not understand what they are being taught a lesson and so they are doomed to wander in the wilderness until they do.
The Talmud in Tractate Ta’anit [29a], commenting on the tears shed by the Jewish People after hearing the slanderous report of spies, asserts that that very evening was the ninth of Av, a day on which two Holy Temples (Beit HaMikdash) would one day be destroyed. G-d told the Jews, as it were, that they cried for nothing while He would in the future give them a real reason to cry. This was not a quid pro quo, but, rather, a lesson: To merit redemption, you must learn to see G-d’s Hand in destruction the same way you see it in creation.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, and Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah.
 See Bemidbar [1:34] and the Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashanah [18a]. Why G-d chose to fortify His decree with a Divine vow is a topic for another essay.
 See Bemidbar [15:30]
 See Shemot [33:2]. What this “angel” actually was is a topic for another essay.