Shelach: Relying on God

Moshe Ben-Chaim

The nation and the Spies were corrupt in their desire to scout Israel prior to entering it. God did not say this scouting of Israel was warranted, but rather that they should enter and they will succeed over the current inhabitants. After 40 days, the spies – excluding Joshua and Caleb – returned with an evil report and incited a riot. The entire nation was frightened by the spies' description of the "insurmountable" giant inhabitants. The nation felt incapable of conquering Israel.

Numbers 14:11 expresses God's disappointment with the nation for not believing in His power to give them Israel. God repeats His phrase, "How long" will they provoke and not hearken. What lesson lies behind the phrase "How long"? God says they didn't believe in Him, despite the wonders He performed in their midst. God repeats this in 14:22,23: 

"For all the men that have seen My glory and My wonders that I performed in Egypt and in the desert, and they tried Me these ten times and did not listen to My voice. They will not see the land I swore to their fathers; and all those who provoked Me will not see it."

God sentenced that generation to 40 years in the desert. They would not enter Israel. But why was the punishment for the nation's sin in a correlative form: a year's sentence in the desert correlating to each day of the scouting (Num. 14:34)? And what is the meaning of God's unique term, "I am God, I have spoken (Num. 14:35)?"

Rashi (Num. 13:2) brings down that God said, 

"By their lives, I will give them an opportunity to err with the words of the spies so they don't inherit the land of Israel." 

This seems vindictive. But as God is devoid of emotions, how do we understand it?

Had God not permitted the spies to spy-out Israel, they would have harbored an incorrect notion in relation to God. That is, their desire to send spies displayed their disbelief in God's promise that they will successfully conquer Israel. If this disbelief was not brought out into the open, they would remain with this false notion, and this is not tolerable by God. What does it mean that "God gave them an opportunity to err?" It means that God gave them an opportunity to act out this error in reality so it can be dealt with. Giving them a chance not to inherit Israel, means giving them a chance to realize their flaw. In this manner, God enabled the Jews to face their mistake, and correct it. 

This teaches us that Israel per se is not the goal, but rather, man's perfection outweighs living in the land. Since man's perfection was at stake, God opted for man's perfection, rather than having them live in Israel at this time.

We understand, God permitted the scouting of the land so as to allow a national flaw to emerge. What was this flaw? As always, the answers are in the verses… 

Twice God states that the Jews failed to apply lessons from the miracles they witnessed. God had performed miracles in Egypt and in the desert. He could equally perform miracles to help them succeed over the most mighty of peoples! Yet, the Jews failed to live by this truth. Their flaw was in attributing greater reality to nature, than to God. They heard there were mighty nations in Israel, and this weighed greater in their assessment of defeat, than in God's word…despite all the miracles they witnessed first hand. They felt human might threatened God's abilities. 

Astonishing, isn't it? Would any of you think, had you seen the miracles those Jews saw, that you would harbor disbelief in God? After the 10 Plagues, The Reed Sea splitting, Revelation at Sinai, Manna, water sufficient for 2 million people coming from a rock, and the Quail…would you doubt God's abilities? You would probably say "No", you would not doubt God after such proof, time and again. So why did those Jews doubt God? After all, they were designed no differently than we are designed. Are we any better off than that nation who witnessed the greatest of miracles?!

However, today, many Jews in fact harbor this same corrupt emotion. This is seen in the failure to give tzedaka in proper quantities, and the time expenditure at work far exceeding time at Torah study. These two errors are symptoms of a distrust in God, which the Jews expressed back then. Those who give but a small fraction of their wealth to tzedaka instead of the 10-20% outlined in the Shulchan Aruch, fear losing their hard-earned money. They do not trust that God will keep His promise stated in Malachi (3:10), to "open the storehouses of heaven and pour out a blessing that is more than sufficient." Those who work 10 hours daily and learn only 15 minutes, fail to heed the Rabbis' teaching to "minimize work, and maximize Torah (Avos 4:12)." They feel, by working less, they will not receive God's blessings. But God says just the opposite. 

In his work Hamaspik, Rabbeinu Avraham, Rambam's son, discusses the purposes of Shmitta and Yovale. We must not work the fields for 12 months and learn to rely on God. Shabbos as well demands we cease from our practical concerns, and learn to rely on God's blessings. The Talmud discusses the great Rabbis who worked just enough for the moment, and then returned to their studies. After all, we take no wealth with us when we leave this world. What we take, is our perfection and joy of wisdom, but only if we learned to enjoy wisdom. And this does happen to those who trust the Sages, and invest greater time in study, than accumulating wealth that usually is never spent, and not taken with us. God will certainly assist those devoted to His greatest mitzvah of Torah study. Rabbeinu Avraham and his father, Rambam, teach that God will provide an easy livelihood for those who reduce their labors and engage our true objective of Torah study. 

In Yesodei HaTorah (8:1) Maimonides teaches that miracles leave doubt in our hearts and lose their affect. In fact, the miracles were not performed to cultivate belief in God, but to address the needs of the nation at those intervals. I would add that after a while, a miracle becomes commonplace…if one follows his emotions. 

The generation of the Spies followed their emotions. They should have remained firm in their intellectual realization of God's abilities and promises. This should have been their primary consideration, since it is God who runs reality! But they caved into their emotions, and placed natural law above God. People today too, place natural law above God's promises. We are no different. 

This explains why God repeats "How long…". Meaning, the duration of time contributed to the nation's sin. They allowed the repeating miracles, "over time", to become commonplace. By God saying "How long" will they provoke and disbelieve, God intimated the underlying phenomenon of "familiarity" as the cause of their sin.

God also says, "I have spoken." He means to say that His word will stand; they will wander the desert 40 years. But I feel He uses this phrase again to highlight the Jews' error: when God spoke about fulfilling His word and giving them Israel without a need to spy the land, they should have accepted His words as absolute. Now they will be forced to accept His word; His sentence of 40 years will not be abrogated.

Why a correlative punishment; 40 years in response to 40 days? This is because their need to spy Israel was the very expression of the flaw we have discussed. They trusted their own calculations more than God's word. They had an emotional need to "see" what they were getting into. Instead, they should have relied on God's word. But they did not, and as long as they were inspecting the land and its peoples, for 40 days, they were catering to that emotion of disbelief in God. Therefore, their punishment must reflect their flaw, for their benefit, so they might contemplate their error those many years and repent. 

Perhaps, the Manna which God fed them those 40 years contributed to their correction, to their reliance on God over nature. For the Manna lasted but a few hours, forcing the Jews to look to God for their daily sustenance over those many decades.