“Questions and Answers” Parashat Devarim 5778

In the first three parshiot of Book of Devarim, Moshe Rabbeinu retells stories that first appear in the Books of Shemot and Bemidbar. One of the stories retold in Parashat Devarim is that of the spies that Moshe sends to reconnoitre the Land of Israel in preparation for its capture. Things go south and Hashem sentences Am Yisrael to forty years wandering in the desert. A group of people called the ma’apilim, undeterred by the Divine punishment, take matters into their own hands [Devarim 1:41]: “Then you answered and said to me, ‘We have sinned against Hashem; we will go up and fight, according to all that Hashem has commanded us.’ Each man girded his weapons and you prepared yourselves to go up to the mountain”. Once again, things go south and the ma’apilim are well and truly routed [Devarim 1:44]: “The Amorites that dwell in that mountain came out towards you and pursued you as bees do and beat you down in Seir, as far as Hormah”. Moshe ends his version of the story on a tragic note [Devarim 1:45]: “You returned and wept before Hashem, but Hashem would not hear your voice nor would he listen to you.”

Hashem’s response to the tears of the ma’apilim is unexpected. The Holy Zohar writes, “All of the gates [to heaven] may close but the gates of tears never close”. If a person truly pours his heart out to Hashem then He is sure to answer. The MaHaRaL of Prague explains that when a person cries, his prayers encompass not only his soul but his body, as well. Nothing can stand in the way of such power. Yet the ma’apilim cry and Hashem pays no attention. Rashi comments, “As if possible [to say of Hashem], you made His attribute of mercy as though it were cruel.” Hashem showed no mercy. Why not? The simplest answer would be that the ma’apilim were not truly sorry for their actions and they cried crocodile tears. As I have not seen this solution proposed by any commentator, this shiur will assume that the tears of the ma’apilim were genuine and yet they were still ignored.

The Sforno asserts that the ma’apilim caused a desecration of Hashem’s name. After the sin of the spies, Hashem wants to vaporise Am Yisrael. Moshe retorts that the Nations of the World would take this as a sign of Divine weakness [Bemidbar 14:16]: “Because Hashem lacked the ability to bring this nation to the Land which He swore to them, He slaughtered them in the desert.” When the ma’apilim fall at the hands of the Amorites, as they must, it gives the Nations of the World reason to doubt Hashem’s infinite power. The Rambam writes in Hilchot Teshuva [1:4] that a sin tainted with desecration of Hashem’s name cannot be forgiven until the sinner dies because as long as he is alive his very existence is a reminder of his sin. As the defeat of the ma’apilim caused desecration of Hashem’s name, all the tears in the world were insufficient to grant them expiation.

Rav Baruch Mordechai from Koidinov, writing in “Divrei Shalom”, continues down the path blazed by the Sforno. The Divrei Shalom teaches that the ma’apilim should have understood that their actions had dragged Hashem’s name in the mud. They should have cried out because of the denigration of Hashem’s honour. And yet, all Hashem heard were the cries of the ma’apilim over their own injuries. They were completely unaware of the extent of their sin and so they could not be forgiven, even had they cried an ocean of tears.

I would like to build on the explanation of the Divrei Shalom. To do this we must first connect the two verses we quoted above: verse 41, in which the ma’apilim announce their intention to storm the Land of Israel, with or without heavenly support, and verse 45, in which their tears remain unanswered. Both verses begin with a word that seemingly adds nothing. Verse 41 begins with the words “You answered (va’ta’anu) and said to me, ‘We have sinned against Hashem’” when it would have sufficed to say, “You said to me, ‘We have sinned against Hashem’”. Verse 45 begins with the words “You returned (va’tashuvu) and wept before Hashem” when it would have sufficed to say, “You wept before Hashem”. Onkelos, in his translation of the Torah into Aramaic, translates the word “you answered” as “va’atevtun” and the word “you returned as “vi’tevtun”, suggesting that the two words have the same root. The Netziv of Volozhn comes along and explains what that root is. He teaches that every time the Torah writes “He answered and he said (va’ya’an va’yomar)”, the word “he answered” actually means “he shouted” or “he cried”[1]. With this explanation in hand, it seems that the word “va’tashuvu” in verse 45 should not be translated as “you returned [from the battlefield]”, but, rather, as “you repented (did teshuva)”. Both verses describe Am Yisrael repenting before Hashem. In verse 45, we learn that their repentance was not accepted while in verse 41, as we will soon see, we learn the reason why.

Let’s take a closer look at the repentance described by the words “you answered and you said”. Our physical world operates via cause and effect. If a pitcher throws a fastball at 97 miles per hour waist high, right over the plate, and the batter manages to hit the ball at a launch angle of 25 degrees and an exit velocity of 100 miles per hour, then the batter is nearly guaranteed a home run. The velocity and direction of the ball off the bat will determine how far it will fly. A physicist would say that D, the distance the ball flies, is a function of the velocity of the pitched ball v0, the launch angle α, the launch velocity vL, the air temperature T and the Relative Humidity RH, or D=f(α,v0,vL,T,RH). If we know all of these parameters and how they fit together in the function, then we can answer the question “How far will this ball fly?” On the other hand, if we do not have access to all of the parameters[2] or we do not know the function, D, then we really have no idea how far that ball is going to go.

Now consider a large complex system, like the stock market. Stock prices rise and fall, sometimes in a predictable manner, sometimes less so.  Not-an-economist[3] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of “Black Swans”, absolutely hates it when he hears a newscaster say something like, “Stock prices rose yesterday on news of increased Saudi oil production”. While stock prices might have risen and the Saudis might have increased oil production, there is no one in the world who can say that one caused the other. The stock market is too complex – there are too many parameters and too many interactions for anyone to begin to understand cause and effect. Using terminology from our baseball example, stock market prediction is hindered by our inability to [1] determine the relevant parameters, [2] calculate their values, and [3] put them together in a function. A person who attempts any kind of serious long-term prediction of stock market prices is destined for failure.

Our existence on this planet is much more like the stock market than like a thrown baseball. Spiritual cause and effect is an enigma. We do not know which mitzvot are more important and which are less. We certainly do not pretend to understand the cosmic results if we eat a cheeseburger. When the ma’apilim “answered and said” that they were sorry for listening to the evil report of the spies, they are insinuating that they understand the question and they understand the results of their actions. “We recognize our error. We see he results. Now we’ll go clean things up. We’ll show those Amorites just how powerful Hashem is” When Hashem ignores their tears, He is telling them, “You cannot answer the question. You lack the necessary tools. You do not know the function or the parameters. You can never comprehend the damage you did. You did not merely disobey Me. You denigrated Me in front of the world and by doing so you have upset world order in planes of existence that you do not even know of. What are you even crying about?”

Repentance is not an answer. Repentance is a statement: “Oh Father, Oh King, I have sinned. I have disobeyed. I want to do better. Please help me.”

Food for thought considering that Yom Kippur is only two months away.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana

[1] See, for instance, Bereishit [18:27] and Shemot [4:1] along with the explanation of the Netziv.

[2] The MLB have been monitoring launch angle and exit velocity only since 2015. Until that year, the technology was insufficiently mature to calculate these parameters with any precision.

[3] Taleb began his career as an economist. As time went on, he began to mistrust and then to despise economists, especially “quants”, people who attempt to build mathematical models of the economy.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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