A punishment of loving-kindness

G-d didn’t command Moshe to send forth the twelve spies; rather, He permitted him to. And the results are history. Why did G-d allow this débâcle to occur?

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Aliyah

It was just the tiniest, subtlest hint that this mission was going to go horribly wrong. A hint so subtle that, when G-d told Moshe to send the spies forth on their mission, Moshe could hardly have been expected to realise the import.

“Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Send for yourself men who will spy out the Land of Canaan which I give to the Children of Israel; one man, one man from each father’s Tribe you shall send – every one of them a prince” (Numbers 13:2).

But actually, that wasn’t the complete story. As Moshe recalled some thirty-eight-and-a-half years later, and as we will read in another seven weeks in Parashat Devarim, the initiative to send the spies came from the Jewish masses:

“You approached me – all of you – and you said: Let’s send men ahead of us who will search out the Land for us... I thought it was a good idea, so I took twelve men from among you – one man from each Tribe – and they turned and went up my the mountains...” (Deuteronomy 1:22-23).

Our perception changes subtly. G-d didn’t command Moshe to send forth the twelve spies; rather, He permitted him to. Hence the phrase שְׁלַח לְךָ, which we have translated here as “Send for yourself”, literally “send to you”.

As Rashi expounds, “Send for yourself – on your own initiative. I do not command you; if you want to, then send”.

So Moshe chose one representative from each Tribe, to which decision G-d also acquiesced:

“One man each from his father’s Tribe you shall send...”(Numbers 13:2).

And the verb that G-d used, תִּשְׁלָחוּ, “you shall send”, suggests a most subtle warning to Moshe. It is an abstruse point of grammar – so fine that few people ever notice it.

And so, a brief Hebrew grammar lesson:

The imperative “you shall send” should be written תִּשְׁלְחוּ, with a sh’va under the lammèd. However, there is a grammatical rule called צוּרוֹת מִשְׁתָּנוֹת, literally “changing forms”, according to which the penultimate vowel in a phrase or sentence is elongated, in this case from a sh’va to a kamatz, תִּשְׁלְחוּ to תִּשְׁלָחוּ.

But, as noted, this applies at the end of a phrase or sentence; that is to say, when the cantillation-mark is an אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א, or a זָקֵף-גָּד֕וֹל, or a סוֹף-פָּסֽוּק (end-of-a-sentence).

However, in our verse, the word תִּשְׁלָחוּ is written with a זָקֵף-קָטֹ֔ן, which cantillation-mark should not (according to the usual rules of Hebrew grammar) change the vowel: G-d should have commanded תִּשְׁלְ֔חוּ, yet He actually commanded תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ.

תִּשְׁלָחוּ, “you shall send”, in the form that the word would normally appear at the end of a sentence, even though this is in the middle of the sentence. As though G-d was ever-so-subtly warning Moshe: Send these men to spy out the Land of Canaan – but the word תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ, “you shall send” with a kamatz under the lammèd, connotes finality. This תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ connotes the end-of-a-sentence. With this תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ, this generation will come to an end.

Indeed, when the spies returned from their mission forty days later, they so utterly demoralised the nation with their dishonest account of the Land of Israel and its properties that they cried, despaired of ever seeing the good Land, and spontaneously decided to appoint a new leader, a replacement for Moshe, who would lead them back to Egypt (Numbers 14:1-4).

And as a consequence, G-d decreed that they would spend forty years in the Sinai Desert, a year for every day of the spies’ mission, and that no man above the age of twenty would enter the Land – they would all die in the desert (vs. 28-35).

This seems to be an appropriate punishment, the classic measure-for-measure.

The spies returned from their mission on the 8th of Av, and that night when the people wept was the 9th of Av – the perennial day of disaster. “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, would all 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.

This indeed seems like the perfect example of the punishment fitting the crime.

And yet...

...and yet the reality may be far less harsh than we view it from our perspective. Maybe this entire sorry episode was not so much a test that the Children of Israel failed miserably as an essential learning experience.

According to both the Ibn Ezra (commentary to Exodus 13:14) and the Rambam (Guide for the Perplexed 3:32), the Jews, having been enslaved in Egypt for centuries, suffered from a slave mentality. An obvious symptom of that slave mentality was that when they were confronted by Pharaoh and his army at the shore of the Red Sea, they were unable to fight (Exodus 14:10-12). Not because the Egyptian Army was objectively stronger than they were, but because they were infected by the spirit of humiliation and subjugation.

Therefore, as both the Ibn Ezra and the Rambam explain, the Children of Israel had perforce to spend an entire generation in the desert.

The older generation, the generation which had been subjugated, beaten, degraded, humiliated throughout their lives had no chance of fighting for their national sovereign independence in their homeland. They had to pass away in the desert, leaving the mission of national sovereignty, of waging war against a nation of giants, to the next generation – the generation of the desert, the generation which had never known slavery.

According to this perspective, then, maybe the decree of forty years in the desert was not a punishment for the sin of the spies – at least not primarily.

Rather, the sin of the spies was not so much the direct cause of the decree as the symptom of the national malaise which made the decree necessary.

And this explains why G-d permitted the whole episode of the spies to occur. The Jews of that generation, and the Jews of all subsequent generations, had perforce to witness how that generation confronted the reality. They, and we, had to witness their inability to dare to confront the Canaanites. Otherwise, the generation of the desert, and all subsequent generations, would have had an ostensibly justified claim against G-d: Why didn’t You allow them to inherit the Land of Israel?

And actually, the Jews of the generation of the desert were (for the most part) not really condemned to such a terrible fate. No, they would never live to see the good Land which G-d had promised them. Nevertheless, they lived comfortable and fulfilling lives in the Sinai Desert, eating manna, studying Torah, loving, marrying, raising children.

All in all, not such a terrible fate. Certainly no worse than millions of Jews throughout the world who voluntarily choose, in our generation, not to make Aliyah, preferring instead their comfortable lives in exile.

And then there was another aspect:

430 years before the Exodus, G-d had forewarned our father Abraham that his descendants would be exiled, “and the fourth generation will return here [to the Land of Israel], because the sin of the Amorite will not be full until then” (Genesis 15:16).

Rashi (commentary ad loc.), following Sotah 9b, expounds that “‘the sin of the Amorite will not be full until then’, to warrant their being thrown out their country until that time, because G-d never punishes a nation until its measure of sin is full”.

And Rashi’s grandson the Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir), who states explicitly that “the fourth generation” means the fourth generation of the Amorites, expands on this:

“Why do I have to wait 400 years? – Because Israel can only return here after the fourth generation of the Amorites, and a generation means a hundred years... Because even though the inhabitants of the Land sinned, and their just punishment is for the Land to vomit out its inhabitants, I have to wait four generations, as it is written ‘...visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the sons to the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me’ (Exodus 20:4, Deuteronomy 5:8) – maybe the descendants [of the Amorites] will repent, because the time in which I will one day punish the Amorite sinners will not have come until the fourth generation of the Amorites”.

Whether according to the Rashbam and the Ramban who understand “the fourth generation” to mean the fourth generation of the Amorites, or whether according to Targum Yonatan, Rashi, and the Radak who understand “the fourth generation” to mean the fourth generation of Abraham’s descendants, or whether according to the Ibn Ezra who understands “the fourth generation” to mean the fourth generation of Egyptians, there was a pre-destined time before which the Children of Israel could not return to their Land.

And at the time of the spies, that time had not yet come. According to G-d’s decree, the Amorites still had another 40 years to dwell tranquilly in Canaan before “their sin would be full”.

So now, we reach a startlingly different understanding of the sin of the spies. Yes, they rebelled against G-d by rejecting the Land of Israel. Yes, they displayed their lack of faith in G-d by arguing that the Israelite nation was not strong enough to defeat the Canaanites (as if the Canaanites were stronger than G-d Himself!).

So why did G-d allow this débâcle to occur?

– This was G-d’s chessed – His loving-kindness – to His nation. He brought us out of Egypt forty years earlier than He otherwise would have done! Forty years before He could have brought us into the Land of Israel, He already released us from slavery in Egypt – forty years during which, instead of suffering in slavery, we were already living free (albeit still in exile in the desert).

This forty-year stint in the Sinai Desert was G-d’s final lesson to us, demonstrating to us in the most practical way possible what the after-effects of exile really are: demoralisation, despair, lack of faith, lack of trust in G-d, estrangement from His commandments and – most of all – estrangement from the good Land which He decreed that we live in.

These are all after-effects of exile which still afflict a horrifyingly high percentage of Jews throughout the world today. After all, more than 70 years after independence in Israel, more than half the Jews in the world continue to live in exile, and for a multitude of reasons, from the most genuine and objectively justified to the most patently absurd (“they don’t sell Bumblebee Tuna in Israel”) to the out-and-out heretical (“we’re forbidden to leave the exile”) to the plain idiotic (“how can I live in a country whose Prime Minister desecrates Shabbat and eats treif?”).

The malaise which infected the nation at time of the Exodus, and which the spies and their mendacious slandering of the good Land were symptoms of, is the malaise which we, in our generations, have begun to cure ourselves of.

“One man, one man from each father’s Tribe תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ, you shall send – every one of them a prince” – though they be princes, leaders of the nation, don’t listen to them if they admonish you against coming to Israel.

תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ, “you shall send”, with the kamatz instead of the sh’va, indicating the end of a sentence – you shall send them, even though they will cause a terrible delay in the journey to the Land of Israel. Because that apparent delay, after which we actually reached the Land of Israel precisely on schedule, taught all the generations what the result of exile really is.

(Post-script: Following the remarks made to me by a friend who reviewed this D’var Torah ahead of publication, there will, G-d willing, be a sequel to this in the next few days – a brief analysis of the “Three Oaths”, which certain elements cite as an argument against returning to Israel and establishing an independent Jewish State. Stay tuned!)