Rabbi Moshe Pinchuk
Former Rosh Kollel (Melbourne, 1998-2001)
Currently Head of the Beit Midrash in Netanya College
The terrible sin of the spies has occurred bringing in its wake the heavy toll of forty years in the desert. Moses carries this message to Bnei Israeland their reaction is immediate: “They got up early in the morning and tried to go up to the top of the mountain, saying: “Here we are, and we shall go up to the place that Hashem mentioned. For we have sinned” (Numbers 14, 40). Netziv interprets this reaction as an attempt on the part of Bnei Israelto repent, they are now prepared and willing to fight and conquer the landof Israel. Nevertheless, Moses warns them against this, “Moses said: “Why is it that you are transgressing the command of Hashem? You will not succeed. Do not go up, because Hashem is not in your midst, that you may not be defeated before your enemies” (Numbers 14, 41-42). Bnei Israel do not heed to his warning, “They presumed and went up to the top of the mountain” (Numbers 14, 44). Netziv interprets this too as part of their repentance – Bnei Israel thought Moses’ warning was merely a test to confirm their altruistic dedication to the cause. Thus Bnei Israel have recognized the gravity of their sin and repented in the fullest and highest manner: Finding oneself in a completely identical situation and refraining from sins as Rambam has defined in his “Laws of Repentance (2:1)”. Of all Bnei Israel’s sins recorded in Pentateuch this one of the only sins where repentance is actually offered. Surprisingly, this repentance is not accepted. One short verse describes the cruel punishment which was the lot of these repenters: “The Amalekites and the Canaanites who were dwelling in that mountain came down and struck them down and scattered them as far as Hormah” (Numbers 14, 45).
Why is it that Hashem refused the repentance of Bnei Israel? I would like to suggest that the Episode of the Immigrants, the Daring Immigrants is no more than a repetition of the sin of the Spies. Bnei Israel’s intentions may have been sincere, but their repentance hit far from its mark. The completely missed the essential point in the sin of the Spies and were thus doomed to repeat it.
In order to understand the essence of the sin of the spies we must turn the beginning of the book of Numbers. There we find Bnei Israel heavily involved in the construction of their camp. Why was all this effort necessary in the pre-spy sin days? Hashem’s timetable at that time was to bring them into the Promised Land in a mere few days, why then was the structure of the camp needed? Apparently the structure and creation of the camp had spiritual meaning as well. The divine promise of “I shall dwell amongst them” is realized in and through the structure of the camp. Had the sin of the spies not transpired, Bnei Israel’s mode of entry to the Promised Land would have been entirely different: “Behold, I have put the land before you. Come and inherit the land which Hashem promised to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Deuteronomy 1, 8). Moses uses the term “inherit” when discussing the capture of the land prior to the sin of the spies. Apparently, had the sin of the spies not occurred the capture of the land would have been smooth, effortless and painless. As one reaches out for a ripe fruit on a summer’s day and a mere touch is sufficient to acquire the fruit so too the landof Israel would have been conquered by Bnei Israel. Rashi comments on this verse: “come inherit – there will be no contesters, there will be no war, had they not sent spies they would not have required military arms”. This is explicit in a rare emotional outburst of Moses: “And when the Arkset out, Moses said: “Arise, O Hashem, and let your enemies be scattered; and let those who intensely hate you flee from before you” (Numbers 9, 35). But Hashem or Bnei Israel had no enemies or haters in the desert! Moses is talking about the entry to the Promised Land; this is precisely how it was to occur: The camp as the “City of G-d” in motion would enter the Land of Israel and the seven nations would scatter and flee.
This was the divine plan, a miraculous entry! Bnei Israel however did not internalize this and planned for a natural and military entry as well. Spies would be the first necessary preparation. We are now in position to understand the mistake of the daring immigrants: They too had the same misconception as the spies they were not able to internalize the divine and miraculous entry Hashem had intended for them. They too thought in terms of military warfare: “At this you answered and said to me, we have sinned against Hashem. We shall go up and fight in accord with all that Hashem our God has commanded us!’ So you girded on, each one, his weapons of war and regarded it as easy to go up into the mountain” (Deuteronomy 1, 41). And so, the repentance of Bnei Israel was no more than a repetition of the sin of the spies. Yesterday, Bnei Israel sinned out of cowardice. Today Bnei Israel repeat the sin but out of Bravery. Indeed they were, to paraphrase a title of Thomas Mann, Holy Sinners.