Pure Service of God: Thoughts on Parshat Devarim

Dedicated to the speedy return of Hadar ben Chedva Leah, and the safety of all of our soldiers.

The entire Book of Deuteronomy is –amongst other things– one long speech of Moses to the Jewish people, recapping the previous four books of the Torah as well as providing new words of rebuke for their previous misdeeds. One of the episodes recounted in this week’s portion is that of the Sin of the Spies and the nation’s punishment of 40 years’ wanderings in the desert. It interesting to note that this week’s Torah portion is always read on the Shabbat immediately preceding the Ninth of Av, the day on which both of the Temples were destroyed and the beginning of the Exile of the Jewish people. There are no such thing as a coincidence in the Torah. What, therefore, is the deeper reason for the juxtaposition of these two ideas, and what message does it have to teach us today?

The Talmud offers a compelling explanation as to the connection between the Sin of the Spies and the upcoming fast of the Ninth of Av. Contrary to popular belief, the root cause of the destruction of the Temples was not exclusively due to the sins of the people of that generation alone. Explains the Talmud, the core cause of the eventual destruction of the Temples began with the Sin of the Spies, who led the nation astray when they refused to enter the Land of Israel. Regarding the night that the Spies brought back their report, the Talmud writes: “You wept in vain; I will establish for you weeping for all generations.” (Tannit 29a) In addition to this Talmudic teaching, there is also proof in this week’s Torah portion that alludes to the fact that the Sin of the Spies paved the way for the Temples’ destruction.

While recounting the episode of the Spies, Moses states: “And all of you approached me and said, ‘Let us send men ahead of us so that they will search out the land for us and bring us back word by which route we shall go up, and to which cities we shall come.’…But you did not want to go up, and you rebelled against the commandment of the Lord, your God. You murmured in your tents…”(Deuteronomy 1:22, 26-27) During his summary of this tragic episode, Moses interjects, “The Lord became angry with me as well, because of you saying, ‘You too shall not come there (the land).’” (Deuteronomy 1:37) Biblical commentators are troubled by this verse which somehow implies that the reason for Moses inability to enter the Land was due to the Sin of the Spies rather than his sin of hitting the rock at Mei Merivah found in Parshat Chukat. There, the verses write, “Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me before the Nation of Israel – therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the Land which I have given to them.” (Bamidbar, 20:12)  Which sin, therefore, can be held responsible for resulting in Moses’ punishment?

In his work Eretz Yisrael in the Parsha, Rabbi Moshe Lichtman quotes the Or Hachayim Hakodesh who offers a very interesting explanation to this question. The Or Hachayim writes: “Our Sages also say that the Temple which stood in Jerusalem would never had been destroyed had Moses entered the Land and built it… had the Sin of the Spies not taken place, and had the Jews entered the Land immediately Moses would have possibly entered with them and built the first Temple.”(Eretz Yisrael in the Parsha pg. 313-314). The Sin of the Spies directly caused the punishment of the nation’s  40 years’ wandering in the desert, and it was during that time of wandering that Moses himself subsequently sinned at Mei Merivah and earned himself the personal punishment of being denied the ability to enter the Land of Israel. According to the Or Hachayim, the Jewish people in the Land of Israel under the leadership of Moses would have remained on such a high spiritual level that the Temple would never have been destroyed. Certainly if that would have transpired, the last 2,000 years of Jewish history would read a completely different story. Therefore, the groundwork for the destruction of the First Temple was laid in the desert at the exact moment of the Sin of the Spies some 900 years previously.

The Talmud also teaches us, “Any generation whose deeds have not brought about the rebuilding of the Temple, it is as if they have destroyed it themselves.” (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Yoma 1:1) If the Sin of the Spies was the root cause for the destruction of the Two Temples, it behooves us to understand the nature of their sin in order to ensure that our generation can remedy their mistake and bring redemption in our times.

There are many opinions[1] as to what exactly the nature of the Sin of the Spies was, and how we should go about trying to repair the damage that they caused. In his work the Tanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains that the Spies had a seemingly noble spiritual reason for their desire to remain in the desert. He writes that the nation in the desert enjoyed a pristine state of spiritual existence: they were nourished by Manna from heaven, their clothes did not become sullied, and they were free to occupy themselves completely with spiritual matters. The Spies knew that with the entrance of the Jewish people into the Land of Israel, that would all change.  There would be no Manna falling from heaven, but rather only through the sweat of their brow would they eat bread. Their spiritual leader Moses would no longer be with them, and life as they knew it would change forever. (Likutei Torah, Parshat Shelach 28:2)  According to Rabbi Liadi, it was because of this uncertainty for the future and their desire to remain on their lofty spiritual level that the Spies slandered the Land and convinced the Jewish people to refuse to enter it.

This explanation begs the question, why was the Spies’ desire to maintain a life of spiritual purity in the desert a sin? Their justification was not due to personal interests but rather for the “sake of Heaven.” Surely their motives were noble and well-intentioned – how, then, did this moment in Jewish history culminate with such disastrous results?

The key to unlocking this perplexing question is found in an interesting episode quoted in Tractate Berachot, where the Prophet Isaiah visits the ailing King Hezekiah. This passage offers us a glimpse in how a person can commit grievous sins, even for the sake of Heaven. The Talmud states:  “In those days King Hezekiah was close to death. And Isaiah the prophet, son of Amoz, came to him and said unto him, ‘Thus said the Lord, Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live…What is the meaning of ‘you shall die and not live’? You shall die in this world and not live in the world to come.’ He said to him: ‘Why so severe?’ He replied: ‘Because you did not try to have children (negating completely a positive commandment in the Torah).’ He said: ‘The reason was because I saw by the Holy Spirit that the children issuing from me would not be virtuous.’ He said to him: ‘You have no reason walking in the pathway of the Almighty. You should have done what you were commanded, and let the Holy One, blessed be He, do that which pleases Him.” (Tractate Berachot 10a) When a person decides to serve God in the manner that they deem fit — regardless of whether or not it aligns or contradicts with what God deems fit — this transforms their noble intentions into a form of impure service.

The Sin of the Spies can be simplified into very basic terms: the Spies believed that they knew better than the Creator of the World. God commanded the nation to leave their way of life in the desert and to enter a new stage in the Land of Israel. Yes, they would need to fight the nations in order to conquer the territory. Yes, they would need to plow the Land so that it would bear fruit. True, Moses would not enter with them and their greatest teacher would not be able to guide them at this pivotal time. But it was the commandment of God to enter the Land, it was His Divine will. The Spies committed the same mistake as Hezekiah, they attempted to walk in the pathways of the Almighty rather than fulfilling a direct commandment and doing that which pleases Him.  They wanted to serve God in the way that they deemed fit, not in the way that He desired. So too in contemporary times, this practice is alive and well. Only once this destructive habit is uprooted – of attempting to outsmart God, as it were—will there be a path toward true and pure Divine service.

As we approach the fast of the Ninth of Av, may we merit fulfilling the verse from Shemonah Esrei recited every Shabbat, “Purify our heart, to serve you in truth.” In this way, we as a people can merit the rebuilding of the Third Temple speedily in our days.

[1] Such as their failure to recognize the true connection between the Jewish People and the Land of Israel, as explained in Thoughts on Parshat Shelach

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator, and is the author of the Two Volume book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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