Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Walk Article-Shelach



Rabbi David Walk


            It's the sad reality that the Jews in the desert were pretty annoying.  It's hard to tell which of their actions was the most frustrating, and God claims that the Jews tested the Divine patience ten times.  But this week's Torah reading presents perhaps the best candidate for most exasperating behavior.  When the spies return from Canaan, the Jews go into full pouting mode.  As the text records:  And the whole congregation cried out with a loud voice, and they wept that night. All the Israelites grumbled and deplored their situation, accusing Moshe and Aharon, to whom the whole congregation said, 'If only we had died in Egypt! Or that we had died in this wilderness!  Why does the Lord bring us to this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and little ones will become plunder. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt? (Numbers 14:2-4)  It's all so disheartening.  God is ready, again, to destroy the nation and rebuild it around Moshe's progeny.  Once more the great leader defends his flock and debates God over their fate.  In his court hearing before God, Moshe makes a curious and mysterious request:  So now, may my Lord's power be magnified just as You have already told us: The Lord is patient and full of mercy, taking away iniquity and wickedness (verses 17-18).  What does this mean?  How can God's infinite power be increased?  Well, we'll have to try and figure out Moshe's request and what lesson we can draw from it.

            As you can well imagine there are any number of ways to deal with this enigmatic statement by Moshe, but I'll suggest one of the three approaches presented by Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340).  In the explanation which he describes as Midrashic, he relates how Moshe is requesting that God's power of compassion should overwhelm the Divine power of justice.  In the described situation of the Jews' whinings, justice wouldn't be to our ancestors' advantage.  So, Moshe is beseeching God to expand the extant of mercy into areas usually associated with God's justice.  Justice would legitimately demand severe punishment for these Jews, because they are not first time offenders.  Moshe's plea after the sin of the Golden Calf had more authority, because at that point the Jews were novices at the demands of monotheism.  However, this is more than a year later and the Jews have witnessed God's power and concern for their well being.  There's no longer any excuse for this kind of grumbling and grouchy behavior.  It's time to throw the book (maybe a whole stack of them) at the ungrateful Jews.  So, Moshe begs that God expand the Divine power of pardon into new areas, usually reserved for Divine punishment.

            The Rashbam (Rav Shmuel ben Meir, 1058-1085, grandson of Rashi) when commenting on this request of Moshe quotes, 'One who is slow to anger is better than a warrior, and one who controls their spirit is greater than one who conquers cities (Proverbs 16:32).'  And the collection of commentaries called the Da'at Z'keinim Mi Ba'alei Tosfot quotes the Mishna in Pirkei Avot, which expounds upon that verse:  Who is heroic?  The one who subdues the Yetzer Hara (evil impulse, Pirkei Avot 4:1). What point are they making?  The request of Moshe is to replace the raw power of punishment with the healing might of compassion.  Often the world believes that displays of force are the most effective means to make a point.  We don't accept that premise.  The ability to control one's tendencies is a greater capability.  We often fall into the trap of believing that raw muscle always wins.  That's not always true.  Remember, the Mishna isn't teaching that controlling your impulses is greater than heroism.  It's teaching that this self control is the definition of heroism.

            When we understand that Moshe is asking for this display of patient pardon for the Jews, we can extrapolate an even more important lesson.  God responds, 'I will forgive according to your statement (verse 19).'  This is taken by many commentaries to mean that God doesn't completely forgive them, which would mean that there would be no punishment, and that generation could go into Israel. God only forgives within the parameters mentioned by Moshe, which only included allowing them to live. Instead, the Rashbam and the Da'at Z'keinim understand that response to mean that God is congratulating Moshe on his great educational lesson to the Jews and the world.  It's almost like God is saying to Moshe Yasher Koach, job well done!

            So, what is the great lesson?  Moshe wants the Jews to understand that ultimately success isn't based solely on physical strength.  That was the mistake of the spies when they observed, 'However, the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified, and there we saw even the offspring of the giant… We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are… and all the people we saw in it are men of great stature (13:28, 31-32).'  And the rest of the nation picked up on that theme when they said, 'Why does the Lord bring us to this land to fall by the sword (14:3)?'   Their ability to conquer the land is based on their relationship with God.  After all the signs and wonders both in Egypt and the wilderness, how come they can't assimilate this most basic idea?  As the prophet taught, 'Not by might and not power, but My spirit, said the Lord of Hosts (Zecharia 4:6).

            Every week Rabbeinu Bechaye picks a verse from Proverbs which best summarizes the central point of that week's parsha.  This week's entry:  The horse is prepared for battle, but the victory belongs to God (Proverbs 21:31).  .As the Jews moved from Egypt and Sinai with their miracles towards Israel, they became more engaged in this earthly realm.  However, we never move so far from God that our destiny isn't decided by Divine will.  Even today we must prepare for every earthly eventuality, but have ultimate faith in God.