So close and yet so far.
The Jewish People had just left Mount Sinai. They were headed to their homeland in the Land of Canaan. Only a few short days of traveling and they could get to the task of building a nation [Devarim 1:2] “Eleven days’ journey from Horeb by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh Barnea”. And then they went and ruined everything. Moses sent spies to scout out the land. The spies returned with a security assessment that capturing the land would be nothing less than suicidal. The people were terrified and they began to search for someone who would bring them back to “safety” in Egypt. G-d punished them by sentencing them to forty years of wandering in the desert [Bemidbar 14:33-34]: “Your children shall wander in the desert for forty years and bear your defection until the last of your corpses has fallen in the desert. According to the number of days which you toured the Land forty days, a day for each year, you will [thus] bear your iniquities for forty years; thus you will come to know My alienation.” Their journey had ended as quickly as it had begun.
The Hebrew word for “My alienation” – “tenu’ati” – is used in only one other place in the entire Bible and so it is a difficult word to translate. Rashi, the ultimate medieval commentator, explains the word as follows: “You alienated your hearts from following Me… G-d gave the Jewish People a punishment that fit the crime (mida k’neged mida). They alienated themselves from G-d by refusing to enter the Promised Land and so He alienated Himself from them”. As Israeli parents often tell their young children: “Lo rotzeh, lo tzarich” – “You don’t want it then you don’t need it”. You don’t want to enter the land? Let’s see how much you like the Sinai Desert.
Rabbi Alexander Zusha Kahana from Plotzk, writing in “Yakar MePaz”, has great difficulty with Rashi’s explanation. If Rashi is saying that the Jewish People sinned by alienating G-d, aren’t all sins in some way a form of alienation of G-d? How was this sin different from all other sins? Rabbi Kahana answers his question by explaining why the Jewish People reacted so negatively to the report of the spies: Whoever said that the conquest of the Land of Canaan was going to be easy? And even if it would be difficult, hadn’t G-d saved them from the Egyptians, the only world superpower of the time? A couple of Canaanites should be child’s play for Him. What was the real reason that they turned and ran? Rabbi Kahana notes that during the time the Jewish People were in the Sinai desert, they led a supernatural life: They ate manna that fell from heaven, they drank water from a boulder that rolled along with them, and they were surrounded by “clouds of glory” that paved a path in front of them and protected them from the dangers of the desert. They were living in an environment that was more suitable for angels than it was for humans. Entering the Land of Canaan would alter this equation. To eat bread, they would first have to plough the land, plant wheat, thresh it, and then grind it into flour. To defend themselves from their enemies, they would have to serve in an army and do thirty or more days of reserve duty each year. Who had time for all this nonsense? Rabbi Kahana summarises their quandary in one sentence: In the desert, they would be learning Torah, while in the Land of Canaan, they would be implementing it. They would be going from a world of pure science to a world of engineering, to a world in which pi is an irrational number with an infinite number of digits after the decimal point to a world in which pi equalled “about three”. By entering that world, they would be entering a lower spiritual level and they wanted nothing of it. This was the source of their sin: They were trying to second-guess G-d. G-d wanted them to leave their ivory tower and to implement everything they had learned, even if it meant that their spiritual level would suffer in the process. Keeping the Torah means doing what G-d wants, even if you don’t understand, even if you disagree. It means taking yourself out of the equation. By running away from the Land of Israel, they were not keeping the Torah – they were putting themselves before G-d, alienating G-d in the process. G-d responded by alienating them, letting them wander for forty years in a desolate desert.
Now here is where things get really interesting. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, known as the Netziv, who lived in Volozhn in the nineteenth century, is troubled by the way in which G-d punishes the Jewish people after the sin of the spies. He asserts that the punishment does not fit the crime: it is the parents who sin and yet it is the children who must spend forty years wandering in the desert. Why does G-d not immediately kill all of the people who sinned and then allow their children to enter the land? The Netziv suggests that there was a good reason for this – there was another reason that G-d did not want the Jewish People to enter the Land of Canaan so quickly. The Netziv draws our attention to two verses in the Book of Devarim. In the last days of his life, Moses recaps forty years of wandering in the desert [Devarim 8:2-3]: “Remember the entire way on which G-d led you these forty years in the desert, in order to afflict you to test you, to know what is in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. He afflicted you and let you go hungry, and then fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your forefathers know, so that He would make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but rather by, whatever comes forth from the Mouth of G-d does man live.” G-d wanted the Jewish People to learn from forty years of walking in the desert how to live under duress. He wanted them to learn that everything comes from G-d. In order to accomplish this, G-d had to have them wander for forty years in the desert.
Now let’s zoom out and merge the explanations of Rabbi Kahana and the Netziv. G-d had a Master Plan in which the Jewish People live in the Land of Israel. There they work from nine to five, although they often have to work overtime and fly overseas to meet with customers. Maybe they have an hour at night to learn Daf Yomi, where they fall asleep over an open Talmud, maybe they even have time to go to a shiur or two. The Jewish People did not want that kind of life. They wanted to stay at the foot of Mount Sinai learning in a Yeshiva. And so G-d punishes them by making them wander the desert for forty years, which is what He wanted them to do in the first place.
Something here is paradoxical: What would have happened had the Jewish People not listened to the spies? Would they have entered the Land of Israel after eleven days? Or would they have eventually committed some other crime that would have warranted forty years of wandering mandated by G-d? Did G-d want them to sin? Let’s rephrase the question: By sinning were they performing the Will of G-d?
The answer to this paradox lies in Rabbi Kahana’s warning: Don’t try to second-guess G-d. King Solomon said it best [Kohelet 12:13]: “The end of the matter, everything having been heard, fear G-d and keep His commandments, for this is the entire man”.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Tzvi ben Shoshana, and Moshe David ben Gisha.
 Job [33:10]
 Rav Kahana was a student of Rabbi Simcha Bunim from Peshischa, a Hassidic Master who lived at the turn of the nineteenth century.
 The commentators offer countless reasons for the reaction of the Jewish People to the report of the spies. We have mentioned some of them over the years in these lessons. As our Sages say, “The Torah has seventy faces’. This is another one of them.
 According to the Netziv, G-d did not tell them this reason when he punished them for the sin of the spies. One trauma was difficult enough for them to digest.
 Rabbi Mordechai Joseph Leiner, who lived in Izhbitza, Poland, in the first half of the nineteenth century, believed that all events, including human actions, are absolutely under G-d’s control. Thus, if everything is determined by G-d, then even sin is done in accordance with G-d’s will. Rabbi Leiner’s views were extremely controversial and some burned copies of his book “Mei Shiloach”.