Midrash Tanchuma explores complex theological issues in our Parsha that provide a far reaching perspective on Jewish history.
We all know that as a result of the negative report by 10 of the 12 spies, the entire generation of Jews died out in the desert. It wasn’t a punishment for giving the report, rather how it was received. The Jews believed it. They “cried all night” about their terrible fate of marching toward a place that 8 of the spies described as a land that “swallows its inhabitants.”
The backstory – do we trust God’s choices
But why did this have to happen? Doesn’t our Parsha start out saying that God told Moshe to send out spies. Doesn’t this imply that God and Moshe supported it?
The Midrash fills in the blanks. God told the Jewish People that the Land of Israel was a “good land”(Deuteronomy. 8:7). The fact that the Jews wanted to send spies was an expression of their lack of faith.
“And yet they [the Jewish People] said “Let us send men ahead of us to explore the land for us.” (Deuteronomy 1:22) because they did not believe.”
The Midrash explains it with a parable: A king chooses a wife for his son who is wonderful, beautiful and rich but the son insists on seeing her first. The king realizes that if his son does not trust him then his son has not achieved the level of character development that would make him worthy of marrying her. The king proceeds to show the prince the woman but lets him know that now he cannot marry her.
All that’s fine and good but a fundamental question remains.
Why doesn’t God shield us from painful consequences
Of course God knew that the episode would end in disaster. Moshe seemed to know as well which is why he changed Hoshea’s name to Joshua. The extra letter “Yud” representing God’s name was supposed to protect Joshua from the dangerous influence of 8 spies. A commentary on Midrash Tanchuma (Be’er Hamamorim) therefore concludes that the whole story can be summed up with one famous Talmudic dictum: “in whatever direction we want to go, God leads us.” (Talmud Makkot 10B)
That’s a bit sobering and depressing. It means that God doesn’t micro manage our moral failings. God isn’t the parent that protects their child from ever making a mistake. Just the opposite. When we’re courting disaster God says “go for it.”
The story of the spies encapsulates Jewish destiny
Learning from mistakes is a powerful way to learn. Some brave parents do it (although it flies in the face of what a “Jewish Mother” would instinctively do). However, we should take comfort in the fact that what emerges is the truth. God didn’t whitewash the state of our faith. He lets it play out as it was supposed to. The consequences were in plain site for all to see. No one can ask “why did bad things happen to good people?”
There are many tragedies in Jewish History that were preceded by the Jewish People leaving the faith. The Books of the Prophets are full of them and so is our subsequent history.
If God sees the train careening off the rails why doesn’t He stop it. The Midrash provides the answer. Shielding us from harm that we cause is not the way God runs the world. The message of our Pasha is that Jewish destiny consists of mistakes, consequences and growth.*
*As much as I am making the case for this to be the rule in Jewish destiny, the Midrash is full of exceptions where God seems to break the rules. At crucial junctures in our history, God does not allow things to go wrong. When Yitzchak realized that Yaakov deceived him to steal the blessing, the Midrash says something startling. At that moment Yitzchak wanted to curse Yaakov but God turned the curse into a blessing. After all, Yaakov was destined to be the father of the 12 tribes. He can’t be cursed or there is no Jewish People, Similarly, when Boaz discovered Ruth lying at his feet in the middle of the night he wanted to curse her. Again, God intervened because Boaz and Ruth are the grandparents of the Davidic/Messianic line. Perhaps we can even put the Jewish People receiving the Torah in this category. The Midrash says it was forced upon us. It was our destiny from creation to receive the Torah. God could not give us the freedom to turn it down.