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'Your children shall roam in the wilderness for forty years… like the number of years you spied out the Land: forty years, a day for a year, a day for a year… and you shall understand [the consequences of] your straying from Me' (14:33-34)
The main content of the Parasha contains the narrative of the Spies. The Israelites believed the ten spies' negative report and its implications, and they were on the verge of rebellion against Moses and Aaron with: 'Let us appoint a leader so we may return to Egypt'. (14:4) Following Moses impassioned plea on their behalf, G-d rescinded His decree to wipe out the Israelites with plague, and instead decreed that they may not enter the Promised Land for an entire forty year period.
The decree, however, appears to lack the usual characteristic of G-d's method of punishment: mida keneged mida - measure for measure. For those who indeed spied out the Land died very soon afterwards: 'in a plague before G-d' (14:37). But the rest appeared to have had nothing to do with the number forty: they simply reacted to the report of the Spies when they eventually returned. What direct connection did the Israelites have with the 'number forty' so that they would be punished 'day for a year' for forty years?
In response, the S'forno offers the following insight. G-d had pronounced the sentence of forty years in the wilderness in the framework of: 'You shall understand [the consequences of] your straying from Me'. S'forno explains that it means that as a result of the long years of wandering, the Israelites would understand the magnitude of the sin of having negated G-d's intent of bringing them into the Land. That last part is important - on having negated G-d's intent of bringing them into the Land.
Following the Ramban, (to 10:35), the Israelites left Mount Sinai relieved to be away from the hard spiritual pressures associated with the Giving of the Torah - 'as a child who runs away from school'. But that does mean that they hurried to their ultimate destination - to the Holy Land. They traveled in compliance with G-d's will, but not in the spirit of a fulfillment of G-d's oath to the Patriarchs. By then they had got used to being 'looked after' by G-d's recurrent miracles, through which their day-to-day needs were taken care of. It seems that they were in no hurry to exchange what they had for going into battle to take the city states of Canaan by force.
Thus the Israelites stalled their progress in the desert as far as possible. When they sent the spies from Kadesh (Deut. 1:46), they did not ask Moses to pray to G-d to give the order for the pillar of cloud to lift and march forward to the Land, meeting the spies on their way back. No. They were quite happy to just 'hang around' until they returned - stalling the journey whenever possible.
So the Spies' negative report fell on willing ears. Anything to avoid pressing on forwards. Though Caleb attempted to present the facts in a positive light, Joshua kept entirely silent - in the knowledge that people in such a mind-frame will hear only what they want to hear - and nothing that might contradict it. It was for those forty days of stalling that the Israelites were punished: as the S'forno puts it, on having negated G-d's intent of bringing them into the Land.
(Naturally, some of the Israelites wanted to subsequently enter the Land against G-d's decree - as many people only realize what they have when it is taken away from them…)
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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