FORGING FORWARD: PARSHAT SHELACH
Shira Smiles shiur 2021/5781
Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein
Parshat Shelach records for us the unfortunate incident of the spies sent to reconnoiter the Promised Land, their negative report, the tragic reaction of Bnei Yisroel, Hashem’s response, a failed attempt at repair, and the final resolution.
At the request of Bnei Yisroel, Moshe gets permission from Hashem to send spies to Eretz Canaan/Yisroel to send undercover scouts to check out the land Bnei Yisroel is about to enter. However, instead of returning with only positive feedback, the spies report that although the land is indeed fertile, it is a land full of giants, a land that “consumes its inhabitants,” and they will be unable to conquer it. This report leads to uncontrollable wailing in despair, and Hashem decrees that this generation will indeed not enter the land, but their children will enter it. The morning brings renewed uncontrolled wailing, this time in remorse, but God’s decree had already been issued, and this night would remain forever destined as a night of tragic wailing for Bnei Yisroel.
The cries of Bnei Yisroel in the morning seem to encompass the full aspect of true teshuvah, following all the steps required for complete return to Hashem. Why was this teshuvah not accepted even minimally asks Rabbi Nevenzahl? When Hashem decreed that Moshe Rabbenu would not enter Eretz Yisroel, Hashem responded to Moshe’s prayers by allowing him to at least see the land, even if the full decree would not be rescinded. Why did this teshuvah not at least lessen the punishment, so that the wandering in the desert would be shortened to perhaps twenty years instead of forty years?
Apparently to prove their sincerity, a group went up the mountain to begin their journey. But the Ark had not moved and the cloud had not risen to indicate the camp should move. What were they thinking? Moshe then warns them that Hashem is not with them and they will not succeed. The Ba’alei Mussar suggests that this act of apparent teshuvah actually was a ploy of the yetzer horo. As soon as they were told, “No,” they insisted on a defiant, “Yes.” And, in fact, the Canaanites and Amalekites descend upon them and killed them, as Moshe had warned. Perhaps, as Onkelos translates, those who ascended were indeed ma'apilim/defiant, rather than repentant.
However, if the people were in fact repentant, why did Hashem not accept their teshuvah? The Shem MiShmuel presents the problem through an analogy. When garments are laundered, most of the dirt is on the surface and gets removed. Sometimes, however, the dirt is so deeply embedded in the cloth that it remains a permanent stain. Similarly, this belief in the evil report of the spies entered so deeply into the core of Bnei Yisroel that no cleansing teshuvah could remove it. Hoping that the dawn would bring with it renewed chesed to join with their teshuvah, they waited until morning to cry again and ascend the mountain, but to no avail.
Rabbi Weinberger recognizes an important defect in the teshuvah process of Bnei Yisroel at that time. Bnei Yisroel did not acknowledge the great chesed of Hashem in allowing them to move unobtrusively around the country. Even in the mourning, their crying was for their loss rather than for their sin. By constantly seeing the negative instead of the great kindness of Hashem, they lost the opportunity to tap into the chesed of the morning and of the Land.
One can, however, approach the actions of the ascenders from a positive perspective. Jews are hard wired to take action rather than to sit back and accept negative situations notes Rabbi Wachtfogel. [Note all the tikun olam movements of Jews, albeit they forget that the rest of the verse is b’malchut Shakai. CKS] These ascenders could not sit idly back and accept the decree. They were willing to be moser nefesh, literally to sacrifice themselves for the ideal of entering the land. [Some commentators say that Tzelaphchad, the father of the five daughters who sought their father’s portion in Eretz Yisroel, was among those that ascended and died. The daughters used this death as an argument of his commitment to and love of the land as their deserving to inherit his portion. CKS] This generation in general would need a full generation of forty years to build a love of the land. Receiving the land so quickly after disdaining it, even with teshuvah, would not grow that love, adds Rabbi Dessler.
Teshuvah does not guarantee acceptance, especially if the process is flawed, writes Rabbi Nevenzahl. The essence of their sin had not been confronted and expunged. The people had attributed independent power to the giants, had viewed the giants as having strength outside of God’s will. Bnei Yisroel did not consider Hashem’s promise that they would inherit the land in spite of anything as unbreakable, and so they were afraid. Now Moshe warned them that Hashem told them not to go forward, and again they rejected God’s word. They had not rectified the essence of the sin, and did what they thought was right and wanted to do in spite of Hashem’s direct words to the contrary, adds Rabbi Moshe Scheinerman. Being a God fearing Jew requires accepting everything Hashem says, observing all His mitzvoth, not picking and choosing. God’s word should form the entirety of our lives.
The essence of Judaism is total submission to Hashem’s will rather than to one’s own. Rabbi Wolbe explains that the definition of vayapilu includes the traits of strength and boldness. These traits can be very positive and enable one to remain steadfast in his beliefs and Torah observance in very challenging circumstances. But they can also be the basis of brazenness, chutzpah, of daring to do that which is prohibited.
The ma’apillim certainly knew they could not move forward without Hashem and The Ark, writes the Birkat Mordechai. But they had learned from Moshe who had the ability, through his passion, to turn to the Ark and declare, “Arise Hashem…” and the cloud would rise as Moshe’s command. They internalized that message and understood that passion [However, what undoubtedly happened was that although it was Moshe’s voice that was the catalyst, it was Hashem’s instructions to Moshe that initiated the process.] They felt their passion would move mountains, and it can, but it cannot do so against Hashem’s expressed will. At that point, writes Rabbi Mintzberg, Hashem’s answer is, “No.” Their sin was their lack of awareness of Hakodosh Boruch Hu.
It took forty years of a new generation to build up this bitachon and learn to submit to Hashem’s will under all circumstances to merit entering and inheriting the Land, writes Rabbi Schlesinger in Zos Hatorah. During those forty years Bnei Yisroel were trained to follow Hashem no matter the situation. Sometimes they would be camped merely overnight, and sometimes for years at a time. Sometimes they could be uprooted from a comfortable site and moved to an uncomfortable site, and sometimes the reverse was true. They learned to submit to Hashem’s will and Hashem’s plan rather than on their own. What is truly good is determined by Hashem, not by the individual.
Before Bnei Yisroel asked Moshe to send spies into the Land, writes Rabbi Schlesinger, the capture of the land would proceed through Hashem’s miraculous order. However, once the people asked for the spies, Hashem activated the natural order to supplant the miraculous order He had originally planned. Before the spies, the timing to go into the Land was propitious; after the spies, the energy of the time changed, and the action of the ma'apilim could not harness an energy that was no longer there. As Rabbi Tatz notes, each action has its proper moment in time with its own energy. When the time has passed, so often has the opportunity. We recognize this truth in business; it is even more valid in Torah observance. We must also recognize that just as each moment has its own unique purpose and the energy to fulfill that purpose, so does each individual have his own unique mission and the time to fulfill it. We cannot celebrate the Pesach Seder in winter, and, although we may recite the Shema in late morning, it will not have the same efficacy as if it had been recited in its proper time of day. When an opportunity to do good presents itself, we must grab the moment, for that moment will not come again.
Shir Hashirim, the allegorical love song between Hashem and Bnei Yisroel, puts it very poignantly. The lover knocks and the beloved demurs. She has already removed her clothes and washed her feet. Shall she now get dressed again and open the door for her beloved? But the love stirs within her, and she rises to open the door. Alas, the opportunity has passed, and the beloved is no longer waiting there.
We need to be attuned to the call of the moment, as when the Prophet Elisha understood the magnitude of the moment that Eliyahu threw his cloak over him. Elisha knew it was time to follow his mentor Eliyahu and accept the cloak of Divine prophecy.
It was the Tribe of Levi that immediately answered Moshe’s call, “Me laHashem Eili/Whoever is for Hashem come to me,” when Bnei Yisroel sinned with the golden calf. Therefore the kohanim of the Tribe of Levi would be in the forefront when Bnei Yisroel would be privileged to enter the Land.
It would take forty years for Bnei Yisroel to learn and internalize this lesson. It takes forty days for a fetus to form, forty for every rebirth in history. Forty days of the flood, forty days on Har Sinai, and forty years, one year for each day, for Bnei Yisroel to be reborn as the nation recognizing Hashem’s chesed, and being worthy of entering the Land.