In reading Parshat Shelach, not only should we be puzzled by Bnei Yisrael yet again doubting Hashem, but we should be puzzled by Hashem’s reaction. Back in Bereishit, Avraham posed to Hashem the rhetorical question: “Will You remove the righteous with the wicked?” (Bereishit 18:13.) Hashem, so to speak, concedes this argument. Punishing innocent people is not how Hashem operates. Yet, that is precisely what seems to be going on after the spies make their report.
After 40 days in the land, the spies make their report whereupon the nation weeps, murmurs against Moshe and seeks to return to Egypt. Yehoshua and Kalev rip their clothing in distress while Moshe and Aharon fall on their faces. Although they try to encourage the nation to trust in Hashem and conquer the land, the people’s response is attempting to stone them. Hashem responds by declaring that He will wipe out the nation and build up a new nation from Moshe. The problem is that the entire nation had not sinned.
Tradition tells us that the women did not sin in connection with the spies. Tradition also tells us that the tribe of Levi did not sin in connection with the spies. Nor did Yehoshua, Kalev or Aharon. Since this is the case, why and how would Hashem destroy these righteous people along with those people who sinned by attaching themselves to the spies?
Then there is also the question of Moshe’s entreaty to Hashem for mercy. Moshe focuses first on what the Egyptians will think of Israel’s destruction and only then mentions Hashem’s attributes of mercy. Yet not all 13 attributes are mentioned, merely six. Why?
We must also ask why after Moshe’s prayers does Hashem seem to change who will perish. Hashem declares that every man who saw His wonders and signs in Egypt and the desert and “tested” Him on 10 occasions will die in the desert. (The Gemara in Arachin 15a and Pirkei Avot 5:4 speak of Bnei Yisrael’s 10 rebellions in the desert. These failings are found in the chumash in: Shemot 14:11, 15;24 16;3, 16;20, 16;27, 17;2, 32;1, Bamidbar 11:1, 11;4, and 14;1-11.) Further, soon thereafter Hashem tells Moshe that those men 20 years and older who murmured against Hashem will die in the desert. Why these two declarations?
The answer to these questions can be found back in Parshat Kedoshim. In Vayikra 19:16-17 it says: “Do not go bearing tales in the midst of your people, do not stand by the blood of your neighbor; I am God. Do not hate your brother in your heart, you shall reprove members of your people and not bear upon you his sin.” From here we learn that if a person has the ability and opportunity to prevent another Jew from sinning they must seize the moment.
Indeed, the Gemara in Shabbos 54b teaches that anyone who can possibly protest against a member of his household sinning and does not is punished for the sins of the members of his house; anyone who can possibly protest against members of his city from sinning and does not is punished for the sins of the members of his city; anyone who can possibly protest against the entire world and does not is punished for the sins of the entire world. The verse in Kedoshim, with its specific reference to tale bearing, or lashon hara, seems particularly apt for the incident of the spies.
Thus, we see how the entire nation can be guilty and worthy of destruction. Some doubted Hashem and slandered the land. Others failed to speak up against these doubters and gossipmongers. If they had spoken up they could have prevented the nation from following after the 10 spies. As we learn from the Gemara in Shabbos, those who failed to speak up were also guilty and liable for destruction. Yet, if all were liable for destruction, why after Moshe’s prayer were some spared and allowed to escape punishment? The answer was their ability, or inability, to prevent the sin.
Yehoshua and the tribe of Levi were closely associated with Moshe. If they tried to convince the nation that conquering the land was feasible, their arguments would have been dismissed out of hand. The futility of Yehoshua and the tribe of Levi attempting to convince the people was so obvious that they were under no obligation to make the attempt. Similarly, women of that day were not expected to inject themselves into the public sphere. Indeed, this is why it was ruled that male, but not female, Moabites were barred from converting to Judaism. When Bnei Yisrael traveled past Moav, the male Moabites failed to fulfill their obligation to greet their cousins and give food and water. Female Moabites were not, however, expected to publicly assert themselves in this way.
Thus, there was no reasonable expectation that Yehoshua, the tribe of Levi or the women could have influenced the transgressors. However, those men of 20 years and up, the very men who would have gone to war, could have, and should have, tried to influence their brethren. For failing to even try, these men were punished along with those who allied themselves with the 10 spies. Also punished were those who, regardless of age, had seen events that should have prompted faith in Hashem.
These men who saw Hashem’s wonders and signs nonetheless failed, once again, to trust the Creator. Nine prior times they sinned. Nine prior times they claimed to have repented, to have done teshuva. Nine prior times Hashem forgave them. Here, on the tenth occasion, they proved that their words of repentance were hollow. Some would be punished for listening to the 10 spies and doubting Hashem. Some would be punished for not opposing the 10 spies. Some would be punished for joining the 10 spies and also for all their prior rebellious acts from which they never truly repented.
Now we can understand Moshe’s prayer. Moshe only mentions six of the attributes of mercy because the remainder are predicated upon true repentance. Here not only was there a lack of sincere repentance concerning the spies, but there was a demonstration that their prior protestations of repentance were less than sincere. Moshe’s prayer and Hashem’s response serves as an important lesson for us.
Hashem response to Moshe’s prayer was: “Salachti k’dvarecha, I have forgiven like your words.” We use this phrase in selichot as it is applicable not just during the time of the 10 spies but to this very day. It does not simply mean that Hashem offered forgiveness consistent with the midot Moshe recited. Rather, it means that the measure of Hashem’s forgiveness and exculpation is consistent with the degree that our words of repentance have meaning.
If our words have substance, if we truly regret the sin, if we do not wish to sin again, and if we crave forgiveness, as opposed to simply seeking to avoid punishment, then Hashem’s forgiveness will also have substance. If, however, our words of selichot and vidui are hollow and never come to pass, so too then Hashem’s forgiveness will also never come to pass. He forgives us in accordance with our words.
The other portion of Moshe’s prayer also has an important teaching for us. Moshe argued that Hashem must spare the nation lest the Egyptians say that Hashem lacked the power to bring the nation into the land. What people see, more than what they hear, has great influence. If we wish to influence people to not sin, the best method is by proper behavior. Let others see our proper conduct and then they may follow suit. If you want others to keep Shabbos, keep it with gusto and a joyousness that cannot be avoided yet will not be cloying. The males 20 years old and up should not have tried with words to influence the sinners. Rather, they should have influenced by way of action. They should have organized themselves and gone forth to conquer. When they did so only after the decree was upon them it was too late. Confessing after being caught and repenting after judgment are akin and both are lacking. This lesson also illuminates the juxtaposition here of the wood gatherer and mitzvah of tzitzit.
There is an oft-noted explanation for why the story of the wood gatherer comes after the sin of the spies. We are taught that the wood gatherer wanted to demonstrate to the despondent nation that the mitzvot were still important despite the fact that most of the nation was condemned to die in the desert. The wood gatherer’s error was attempting to make this point in a negative manner. He should not have sought to demonstrate the importance of mitzvot by violating them, but rather by exalting them. The Torah points this out to future generations by immediately setting out the laws of tzitzit.
The Gemara of Sotah 17b explains how looking at the blue thread of the tzitzit will cause us to remember the mitzvot. The blue color of techelet is similar to the color of the sea, the sea is similar to the sky and the sky is similar to Hashem’s Throne of Glory. A portion of the Throne of Glory was seen by the Jews when Hashem gave us the Ten Commandments. The sight of the techelet should remind us of the Throne of Glory. This in turn should cause us to recall the commandments we heard Hashem utter at Har Sinai. The techelet of the tzitzit is pure blue. It is pure as the Throne of Glory is pure and as Hashem’s mitzvot are pure. When we wish to influence others to keep the mitzvot we should do it by acting in a pure fashion. We should influence others by keeping the mitzvot and not violating them. To emphasize this, the pure commandment of tzitzit is placed next to the tainted effort of the wood gatherer. His intent was good, his chosen method was not. May we be fortunate to act with purity of intent and execution in serving Hashem, correcting the deeds of the 10 spies and the wood gatherer.
William S.J. Fraenkel received a bachelor of arts in religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.