Our generation is, in its own way, that of the Book of Numbers.

Numbers separates the slave-generation which left Egypt from the free desert-generation. Which generation are we?

Daniel Pinner ,

Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

The last portions of the Book of Numbers (Parashot Mattot and Mas’ei, read together as they are this year, as in most years, or separately as they are in less than one-quarter of years), are invariably read during the Three Weeks – the period from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av during which we mourn for our lost independence and devastated Land.

This is surely not coincidental: when Chazal set the annual Torah-reading cycle towards the end of the Second Temple period, they divided up the Torah such that certain parashot always coincide with specific junctures of our calendar.

This is the time of year when, more than ever, we suffer the consequences of the sin of the spies. They delivered their evil report a year and four months after the Exodus, on the 8th of Av 2449 (1311 B.C.E.), and that night, the 9th of Av, the entire nation wept in despair.

“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.).

As we approach the 9th of Av, we ask yet again: How could the spies have been so disastrously wrong?

They were certainly no fools, neither did they lack faith in G-d. But they made erroneous assessments based on their subjective interpretation of the situation:

  • 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 mitzvah of living in Israel.

And now, almost forty years on, after that generation had died out, Moshe at last had the opportunity to rectify the sin of the spies.

“Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Avenge the vengeance of the Children of Israel against the Midianites; after that you will be gathered unto your people. Moshe spoke to the nation saying: Arm men from among yourselves for the army, and they will be against Midian to inflict Hashem’s vengeance against Midian” (Numbers 31:1-3).

This was the appropriate response for the Midianites for sending their daughters to seduce the Jewish men, as a consequence of which 24,000 Jews died in the resulting plague (25:1-9).

G-d was telling Moshe that he had one final task to fulfil, and upon completing it he would die.

Now Moshe could easily have delayed fighting against the Midianites, and for very convincing reasons. After all it takes time to put an army together, to select the best commandos, to train the soldiers, to build up combat units, and so forth.

Then, as every military commander knows, before embarking on any mission the army must gather intelligence, determine the enemy’s strength, send raiding parties to attrit the enemy forces, prepare field command posts, and so forth.

By that time winter would already have set in, and winter with its uncomfortable weather and short days is no time to initiate conflict. Winter is for training, consolidating forces, and besieging the enemy.

Moshe could easily have delayed the attack against the Midianites for months if not for years, and thus extended his own life. As the Midrash says, “Had Moshe wanted to live for several more years, he would have lived, because G-d said to him, ‘Avenge the vengeance of the Children of Israel against the Midianites; after that you will be gathered unto your people’. G-d made his death contingent on the vengeance against Midian. And this teaches you Moshe’s praises: he did not say, I will delay the Children of Israel’s vengeance against the Midianites so that I may live. Instead, immediately ‘Moshe spoke to the nation saying: Arm men from among yourselves for the army and they will be against Midian’ (Numbers 31:3)” (Bamidbar Rabbah 22:2 and Tanhuma, Mattot 3).

Or in the terse words of Sifrei, Mattot 157 “‘…after that you will be gathered unto your people’ – saying that Moshe’s death would be delayed for the war against Midian; yet nevertheless Moshe went about this task joyfully, as it says ‘Moshe spoke to the nation saying: Arm [הֵחָלְצוּ] men from among yourselves…’ And the word הֵחָלְצוּ means ‘hasten’”.

We have translated the word הֵחָלְצוּ as “arm”, following Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Targum Yerushalmi, the Radak (Sefer ha-Shorashim), and others, though it has a few different meanings. As the Sifrei points out, it also connotes “hasten” (the Targum Onkelos translates as זְרִיזוּ, and Targum Yonatan translates as אִזְדַרְזוּ, different verb-forms of the same root זרז meaning both “arm” and “hasten”). It also connotes “draw out, separate”.

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 34:15) gives four meanings for the verb: to release, to arm, to redeem, and to grant respite.

Maybe Moshe intended all of these, deliberately using this very ambiguous verb laden with meanings. He called on one thousand men from each tribe to separate themselves for this task, to release themselves from whatever else they may have been involved with, to hasten to arm themselves, to redeem the nation, and to grant them respite from their enemies.

By acting thus, Moshe was in effect rectifying the sin of the ten spies whom he had sent forth on their mission all those decades ago. By their self-seeking subjective manipulation of the situation, they had doomed the generation to death in the desert. And now Moshe, with his selfless dedication to the task that G-d had set for him, knowing full well that by hastening this war against Midian he was hastening his own death, finally nullified the spies’ evil counsel.

It is no coincidence that immediately after the war with Midian, the next event that the Torah records was that the tribes of Rueben and Gad, seeing the excellent pastureland of trans-Jordan (the territory previously occupied by Moab, Midian, Bashan, and the Amorites, currently occupied by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan) desired to settle there.

Moshe foresaw a potentially disastrous situation approaching. After defeating the Midianites, after he had willingly given his life to rectify the sin of the spies, these tribes’ request seemed to be a re-run of that self-same débâcle.

Was that disaster going to recur? Was the nation, at the very threshold of the Land of Israel, going to be doomed to yet more decades in the desert? Was Moshe’s self-sacrifice worthless, to be squandered by two self-seeking tribes?

Moshe reminded the tribes of Reuben and Gad of what had transpired all those decades earlier and the punishment the entire nation endured as a result, and warned them against repeating it (Numbers 32:6-15). Those two tribes assured Moshe that they were neither rejecting the Land of Israel nor shirking their duty to fight for it alongside their brethren: “We will build sheepfolds for our flocks here and cities for our children, then we will arm ourselves swiftly ahead of the Children of Israel until we shall bring them to their place…” (vs. 16-17).

Under these circumstances – the tribes of Reuben and Gad promising to be the pioneers, the first to cross the River Jordan into Israel, the first to fight for the Land, and only after the conquest was completed with the nation dwelling securely would they return to their children and livestock in trans-Jordan – Moshe gave them his blessing.

Five weeks ago, in Parashat Sh’lach Lecha, we read of the sin of the spies. In less than two weeks, the 9th of Av, we will commemorate the day on which they committed that sin. In previous years we have commemorated the 9th of Av by fasting and mourning. Maybe this year we will already commemorate the 9th of Av by feasting and rejoicing. We still have time to make this momentous change before the dreaded day begins.

Events are moving swiftly, and no one can envisage what the world will look like, certainly not what Israel and the Middle East will look like, a year from now or even a few days from now. After all, just six months ago no one could have envisaged what our current world would look like – Covid-19, global lockdown, universal riots, statues and all they represent being torn down, near-revolution in some of the world’s stablest democracies…the list goes on.

But this week’s parashah shows us how to rectify the sin of the spies, which is the crucial prerequisite for the nation to inherit the Land of Israel.

It is with this double parashah Mattot-Mas’ei that we conclude the Book of Numbers.

Now the Book of Numbers is a bridge: it both connects and separates. It connects the generation of slaves which left Egypt, cowed and beaten and submissive, psychologically incapable of fighting for its own freedom, with the free generation which grew up in the desert, unfettered by slavery, proud and fierce and strong, yearning for its own sovereign national independence and willing to fight for it.

But it also separates the slave-generation which left Egypt from the free desert-generation.

Just five weeks ago, Parashat Sh’lach Lecha demonstrated how the slave-generation was not ready for national sovereign independence. This week’s double parashah Mattot-Mas’ei depicts the proud, fierce, free desert-generation on the threshold of its Land, poised and ready to fight and conquer.

Our generation is, in its own unique way, the generation of the Book of Numbers.

It contains Jews who are still mired in exile, psychologically unready for national sovereign independence in its ancestral homeland, who meekly put their arms up in mute submission to every enemy, however weak.

And it contains millions of Jews who have long since crossed the bridge, who are ready both physically and mentally for redemption, who know perfectly well how to raise their arms and fight for national freedom and liberation.

As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught, if you have the power to destroy, then believe that you have the power to rectify. Just as the generation of the spies destroyed the opportunity for redemption in a matter of a few moments, our generation has the power to bring the redemption in a matter of a few moments.

This is the sobering and infinitely inspiring idea that leads us through the Three Weeks, the Nine Days, and ultimately into the Ninth of Av.