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24.07.2017 14:00    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  devarim  

Three Requests and a Single Response

So Moses, by the Lord’s command, sent them out from the wilderness of Paran.

But when Moses retells the story in Parashat Devarim, he says that the people demanded scouts be sent (Deut. 1:22-23):

Then all of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land for us.”

It is possible that in Parashat Shlach the Torah wished to conceal the people’s disgrace, but Moses, whose aim was to reproach the Israelites so that they behave better in the future, revealed the bitter truth.  This would imply that the Lord agreed to the request which from the outset showed a latent lack of faith, as further developments proved.

This explanation is not an attempt to reconcile scriptural passages which appear to contradict one another; rather, it stems from three points:

  1. In Parashat Shelah, the Torah takes care to stress the excellence of the scouts who were dispatched, “each one a chieftain among them” (Num. 13:2), and “all the men being leaders of the Israelites” (Num. 13:3).  This attests to the importance of the spiritual weight of those who were sent.  Had we been dealing with a common operation taken before going to war, when a division of mere scouts is sent at the Lord’s command, then for this forty-day expedition light-footed youngsters, in good physical shape and with high endurance, ought to have been chosen, and not leaders of the people or chieftains who had been selected for other reasons.  But if sending the scouts indeed had been motivated by the people’s fear and lack of desire to face the difficulty of conquering the land, as it says in Parashat Devarim,[1] then the Lord’s consent after the fact in Parashat Shlach is an attempt to change the way the wind was blowing among the people, hoping that the dignitaries who were sent would, by their reasoned views and spiritual weight, sway the people in the right direction.
  2. According to the basic assumptions of the Torah, the Lord’s selecting the people by name, as is emphasized twice,[2] ought to have assured that these elect people would perform their duty in the best possible way, because the Lord fathoms the heart and is not fooled by what one sees.  Therefore, one cannot come with complaints against the people for believing the words of the vast majority of the Lord’s chosen!  Only if the Lord’s consent was given after the fact to something whose motives were negative is there room for the Lord to have been angry at the people for following the advice of the scouts.
  3. Many of the people to whom Moses was addressing his words thirty-eight years after the fact had been alive when the scouts were dispatched.  Even though they were less than twenty years old at the time, they were sufficiently mature to remember this traumatic event and could have protested had Moses been imputing to their parents a flaw in their faith which they did not have.[3] Therefore it appears that Parashat Devarim is describing the historical truth, and that sending the scouts indeed received approval from the Lord, as it says in Parashat Shlach.  This consent, however, came after the fact in order to appease the people; those who listened to Moses knew that indeed their predecessors had not acted properly.

Why did the Lord comply with a request based on lack of faith?

The answer lies in the precedent set by a request which also entailed a serious lack of faith, but with which the Lord complied in order to prevent desecration of his honor.  After the people clamored for meat in Parashat Be-ha`alotkha, the Lord said (Num. 11:18-20):

And say to the people:  Purify yourselves for tomorrow and you shall eat meat, for you have kept whining before the Lord and saying, “If only we had meat to eat!”...For you have rejected the Lord who is among you, by whining before Him and saying, “Oh, why did we ever leave Egypt!”

In response to Moses’ question about the sense of giving the sinful people what they want, the Lord said, “Is there a limit to the Lord’s power?” (Num. 11:23).  In other words, not fulfilling their request would lead to desecration of the Lord because the people would see it as proof of limitation of His might.  This argument, which suffices to explain fulfilling an unjustified demand for meat, also is apt in helping us understand the Lord’s consent to sending scouts; for if the Lord were not to comply with their request, they would claim that the Promised Land was not a good land and that consequently the Lord was apprehensive of a pilot investigation by representatives of the people.

Many generations later a similar event occurred.  When, in the time of Samuel, the people demanded a king, the Lord viewed this request as a rejection of Himself yet nevertheless he complied with it (I Sam. 8:7-9).  Refusing to comply with the demand for a king was likely to be interpreted as indicating that the Lord feared lest a rival take His place.  Therefore, the people’s demand was answered affirmatively, as we read (I Sam. 8:9):

Heed their demand; but warn them solemnly, and tell them about the practices of any king who will rule over them.[4]

The three events mentioned—sending the spies, providing meat, and putting a king over the people—have certain things in common, in addition to the Lord’s reserved compliance with the request:  there was a measure of justification in the people’s requests, notwithstanding their negative motivation, and the punishment was a natural consequence of the sinfulness of their requests.

Dispatching spies before going to war has some justification, and indeed that was what Moses did thirty-eight years later, when he conquered Jazer (Num. 21:32), and Joshua, before taking Jericho (Joshua, chapter 2).  But the majority opinion presented by ten of the spies, along with the hysterical response of the people, who preferred to return to bondage in Egypt, prove that from the outset the call for sending spies was not in order to pave the way for conquest of the land but in order to find an excuse for remaining in the wilderness.

No punishment was actually meted out for being rejective of the land, rather, the Lord simply let the condition that the people wanted continue:  to die in the wilderness rather than die conquering the land.[5] Hence only those died who were supposed to have been in the army but did not have a fighting spirit, while the resilience and strength of spirit of the younger ones was built up during the thirty-eight years of wandering through “the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it” (Deut. 8:15).

As for the demand for meat, the Israelites indeed had flocks, but under nomadic conditions and with their cramped quarters in camp it was unpleasant for one person to eat meat when his neighbor could not do so at the same time, for meat could not be cooked in secret.  Therefore, only by giving meat to the entire people at the same time could the craving for meat be satisfied.  This justification does not do away with the sin of complaining and turning the period of bondage in Egypt into the golden era of the nation.

The outcome of complying with the request makes it clear why the Lord did not see fit to provide meat from the outset, since eating too much meat caused the people physical harm.  In this instance, too, it was not a punishment but the natural result of a body that had been accustomed to eating the delicate diet of manna suddenly falling ravenously on a coarse diet of meat.[6]

Even the people’s demand that a king rule over them had some justification, had they asked for a king who would judge them, as the elders requested:  “Therefore appoint a king for us, to be judge over us like all the nations” (I Sam. 8:5), since “By justice a king sustains the land” (Prov. 29:4).  But that was not what the people had in mind, asking for a king for the purpose of war, not for law and order.  Therefore, in their request there was an element of rejecting the Lord, their deliverer in war and time of need—except that His aid was conditional upon them returning to the Lord, as Samuel reproved them when the monarchy was inaugurated (I Sam., ch. 12).

Again, punishment was not necessary.  The exaggerated demands that the king placed on the people, a heavier burden than the yoke of the Lord’s commandments, pressed upon the people.  But the Lord’s help with this burden, unlike the burden of enemies, was not assured.  Therefore, “The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you on that day” (I Sam. 8:18).

In any event, after crowning the king, Samuel pointed out that nothing would keep the Lord from being sovereign over His people.  Quite the contrary, even the king would be in the Lord’s hands, as clay is in the hands of the potter:  “For if you persist in wrongdoing, both you and your king shall be swept away” (I Sam. 12:25).  Therefore, the inevitable conclusion is:  “Above all, you must revere the Lord and serve Him faithfully with all your heart; and consider how grandly He has dealt with you” (I Sam. 12:24).  This conclusion also applies after G‑d miraculously provided the Israelites meat in the wilderness; it applies after the twelve scouts returned safely from their long and dangerous mission;[7] and it also applies at each of the significant junctures along road the Jewish people have journeyed.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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