A Lesson in Practical Repentance

It is now less than seven weeks until the ninth of Av. The decision is in our hands.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

This past week we read how after forty days of spying out the Land of Israel the twelve spies returned to the nation of Israel, poised on the border of their Land eagerly awaiting their imminent national redemption.

Thus ended what was supposed to be the redemption of the Generation of the Desert.

The Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) calculates the Torah’s chronology: in the second year of the Exodus, on the 20th of Iyyar we left Mount Sinai (Numbers 10:11), followed by a 3-day journey (v.33) concluding on 23rd Iyyar, a 30-day sojourn in Kibroth-hattavah (ibid. 11:20, 34) concluding on 22nd Sivan, and finally seven days in Hazeroth (11:35, 12:15-16) before reaching the Paran Desert (ibid. 12:16) on 29th Sivan.

Hence Moshe sent out the twelve spies on the 29th of Sivan (compare Targum Yonatan to Numbers 13:20 and Midrash Lekach Tov, beginning of Shelach Lecha), and they returned forty days later on the 8th of Av.

The original plan was that they would be debriefed, and the next day, the ninth of Av, Israel would enter its Land in joy and holiness, and take possession of its inheritance. The ninth of Av would become a celebration for the generations, a festival of redemption.

But the plan went horribly wrong. The spies indeed returned on the 8th of Av, but gave an evil report of the Land; and when night fell and the nation cried, it was the evening of the 9th of Av.

The commentators grapple at length with the puzzle of how ten of these twelve spies could make such a terrible error. They were, after all, the gedolei ha-dor, the Torah-leaders of their generation. During the previous two years they had witnessed the ten plagues in Egypt, the Splitting of the Sea, the Giving of the Torah, the daily miracle of the manna. Surely they knew that G-d would fight for Israel, that the physical size and prowess of the Canaanites was irrelevant.

Various explanations have been offered: that they believed that the generation was not on a sufficiently high spiritual level to merit Divine intervention; that in the desert they were the leaders of the nation, and their fear of losing that status in the Land of Israel caused them [subconsciously] to sabotage the entry into the Land; that they realized that entering and possessing the Land would inevitably involve warfare, that people would therefore die, and that pikuach nefesh (saving lives) over-rides all the mitzvot – including the mitzva of living in Israel.

Whatever their motives, their error caused disaster – not just for themselves, but for the generations: “G-d said: You cried this night for no reason?! – I will yet give you a reason to cry on this night throughout the generations!” (Ta’anit 29a, Sotah 35a, Sanhedrin 104b, Bamidbar Rabbah 16:20 et al).

G-d always punishes measure for measure, and the punishments for the sins of the spies carry a particularly grim humour.

“The entire community said: ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this desert! And why is Hashem bringing us to this Land to fall by the sword?! Our women and our children will be ravaged! Are we not better off returning to Egypt?!’ And all the men said to each other: ‘Let us appoint a leader, and let us return to Egypt’” (Numbers 14:2-4).

The spies themselves, who warned of impending death in Israel, died immediately (v.37). The men, who were frightened of dying in Israel, were condemned to die – albeit natural deaths – in the desert, spending the rest of their lives in exile. The women and children, whom the men feared would be ravaged, survived the decades of desert dwelling and inherited the good Land.

And the measure-for-measure punishment continued throughout the generations. It was on the same day, the ninth of Av, that the first Holy Temple was destroyed by Babylon, 890 years after the original sin of the spies. And it was on the same day that the second Temple was destroyed by Rome, 1,380 years after the spies. The message is clear: You thought you would be safer, more comfortable in exile?! On this same day, see and experience what exile really is!

And this lesson of exile, grim and bloody, reverberates through our history. “Among those nations you will not be tranquil, and there will be no rest for the sole of your foot” (Deuteronomy 28:65). You believe you can live safely and comfortably in exile? It was on this same day, the ninth of Av in 5050 (1290), that King Edward I of England decreed that all Jews in his kingdom – who included among their number some of the great Tosafists – be expelled.

Was there ever a Jewish community in exile wealthier, more secure, more influential, more learned, than that of Spain? And they, too, were finally expelled from their comfortable exile on the ninth of Av 5252 (1492).

And it was on this same day, the ninth of Av 5674 (1st August 1914) exactly a century ago, that the First World War began – leading directly, inexorably, to the wickedness of communism and  the horrors of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust.

Indeed – “a reason for crying on this night throughout the generations”!

All this, of course, demands the question: Why should we, today, still continue to be punished for the sin of the spies – in fact, the sin of the entire generation – 3,325 years ago? Even for those of us who have returned to the Land of Israel, this crying still resounds in our generation. Who can forget the hideous irony that when the government of Israel decreed the extirpation of the Jewish presence in Gaza and northern Samaria back in 5765 (2005), they instinctively chose the ninth of Av as the final day on which Jews could be there legally?

“Every generation in whose days the Holy Temple is not rebuilt is considered as though they had destroyed it” (Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1). Harsh words indeed! Why should a generation be considered as though they had destroyed the Holy Temple just because it had not been rebuilt in its days? The Midrash explains: “What is the reason? – Because they had not repented” (Yalkut Shimoni, Psalms 886). Had our generation – we personally – done true teshuva, then the Holy Temple would already have been rebuilt.

Previous generations may have had some justification, or at least some excuse: the Land was under foreign domination, Jews were prevented from approaching the Temple Mount, they did not have the physical strength needed to conquer the area. But our generation? If previous generations were considered as though they had destroyed the Temple, then what can our generation ever say?

Do we have a Joshua and Caleb in our generation, who will rise up and lead us to inherit the good Land? Is there a leader who will tell us that with the power of G-d, all the inhabitants of the Land will melt away before us?

Maybe a Joshua will yet arise, and the nation will follow him rather than the ten evil spies. What, then, marked out Joshua?

Joshua was a leader of the Tribe of Ephraim, and it was Ephraim, more than all the other Tribes, who was distinguished for their love of the Land of Israel, sometimes even against the will of G-d. The Midrash records that thirty years before the Exodus from Egypt, “the men of Ephraim, who were proud of being born to royalty [i.e. to Joseph, ruler of Egypt] and valiant soldiers, arose and took their wives, their sons and their daughters, and went forth out of Egypt. The Egyptians pursued after them and killed all 200,000 of them, all of them valiant soldiers” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 48).

The Targum Yonatan, however, makes it clear that they actually reached Israel: “200,000 men, valiant soldiers of the tribe of Ephraim, armed with shields and spears and weapons, died in war, when they went down to Gath to loot the Philistines’ livestock; because they had transgressed G-d’s decree by leaving Egypt 30 years before the end time had come, they were handed over into the hands of the Philistines who killed them” (Targum Yonatan to Exodus 13:17; compare Targum to 1 Chronicles 7:21).

A century and a half later, when the judge Ehud (a Benjaminite) assassinated the Moabite tyrant king Eglon who was occupying Israel, it was the men of Ephraim who were the first to join the fight and to redeem the Land from the Moabite occupiers (Judges 3:27).

And more than a century after that, when the judge Gideon was battling the Midianite oppressors, it was to the tribe of Ephraim that he turned to secure the victory (ibid. 7:24). Indeed, the only complaint that the men of Ephraim had was that they had not been called to war earlier (ibid 8:1-3).

In short, it was the Tribe of Ephraim that was distinguished by their willingness for self-sacrifice for the sake of the Land of Israel. So it was appropriate that Joshua, the leader of Ephraim who was sent to spy out the Land, would do his utmost to encourage the nation to take possession of the land; and almost 39 years later, he was the leader who would lead the nation across the River Jordan to inherit the Land.

There is a very subtle hint in the text of the Torah that Joshua was more connected with his tribe than the other spies were to theirs. In enumerating the twelve spies, the trop (the cantillation marks) for eleven of the twelve spies are identical. The usual formula is: “For the tribe of Reuben – Shammua son of Zaccur,” with a zakef-katon (two vertical dots) over the name of each tribe. The zakef-katon indicates a pause in the sentence, which we have attempted to represent in English translation with a dash, suggesting a break between the spy and his tribal ancestor.

Eleven of the twelve spies are written in this way (“For the tribe of Simeon – Shaphat son of Hori” etc.). The sole exception is: “For the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea son of Nun,” where the cantillation marks under the words “for the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea” are mercha, tip’cha, and the name “Hoshea” has a mercha under it. It is extremely subtle, but the break is less: it indicates a closer connexion between Hoshea (Joshua) and his tribal ancestor.

It is this leader that we so desperately need today: one who has the close connexion with our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; who has the connexion with the Land of Israel and the Nation of Israel; who is ready to fight for people and Land; who has the courage and the faith in G-d to stand up, when necessary, to the nation, including even to the gedolei ha-dor, and insist on truth and right.

It is now less than seven weeks until the ninth of Av. The decision is in our hands – it has always been in our hands, but now more than ever we have the ability to make the correct decision – whether this year the ninth of Av will still be a day of crying, of tragedy, of destruction, of continuing the sin of the ten spies; or whether this year we will follow Joshua and Caleb into the Land of Israel, into the redemption, and finally, after 3,325 years of crying, to make the ninth of Av a day of rejoicing, of rebuilding the Holy Temple.