In this cycle, through the Torah, we will be taking a mystical journey. Our guide will be Rabbi Larry Tabick’s book, The Aura of Torah, published in 2014 by the Jewish Publication Society and the University of Nebraska. Translations of kabbalistic texts are by Rabbi Larry Tabick. Translations of the Torah and other commentaries are from Sefaria, except where otherwise noted. Translations of the Talmud are the Steinsaltz, William Davidson Talmud, on Sefaria.
We reach the central event of Bamidbar, with the spies rejecting the possibility of inhabiting the Promised Land and the people panicking in fear.
But the men who had gone up with him [Caleb] said, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we. “Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they scouted, saying, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the Nephilim there — the Anakites are part of the Nephilim — and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”
The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night.
The verses continue: “But the men that went up with him said: We are not able to go up against the people; as they are stronger than us” (Numbers 13:31). Rabbi Ḥanina bar Pappa says: The spies said a serious statement at that moment. When they said: “They are stronger,” do not read the phrase as: Stronger than us [mimmennu], but rather read it as: Stronger than Him [mimmennu], meaning that even the Homeowner, God, is unable to remove His belongings from there, as it were. The spies were speaking heresy and claiming that the Canaanites were stronger than God Himself.
The spies said: “It is a land that consumes its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:32). Rava taught: The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I intended the land to appear to consume its inhabitants for their own good, but they considered this proof that the land was bad. I intended it for their good by causing many people to die there so that anywhere that the spies arrived, the most important of them died, so that the Canaanites would be preoccupied with mourning and would not inquire about them. And there are those who say that God caused Job to die at that time, and everyone in Canaan was preoccupied with his eulogy, and did not pay attention to the spies. However, the spies considered this proof that the land was bad and said: “It is a land that consumes its inhabitants.”
The spies said: “And we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so were we in their eyes” (Numbers 13:33). Rav Mesharshiyya says: The spies were liars. Granted, to say: “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes,” is well, but to say: “And so were we in their eyes,” from where could they have known this?
The Gemara responds: But that is not so, as when the Canaanites were having the mourners’ meal, they had the meal beneath cedar trees, and when the spies saw them they climbed up the trees and sat in them. From there they heard the Canaanites saying: We see people who look like grasshoppers in the trees.
The verse states: “And all the congregation lifted up their voice and cried” (Numbers 14:1). Rabba says that Rabbi Yoḥanan says: That day was the eve of the Ninth of Av, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: On that day they wept a gratuitous weeping, so I will establish that day for them as a day of weeping for the future generations.
What kind of distortions are the rabbis imagining in the thoughts of the spies?
Why does God punish future generations?
Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir, 18th century, Ukraine
I heard concerning the the Maggid [Dov Ber of Mezritch] that he gave an explanation of the verse, “A land [eReTZ] consuming those who dwell in it. [Scripture] wants [to tell us that] the lower levels [of existence] known by the term “earthly” [eRTZiyut] “consume” and destroy those who “dwell” and remain there, for no one has permission to keep themselves in the [purely] earthly aspect, even for a single moment.
Rabbi Dov Ber is saying we will be destroyed if don’t reach beyond our material conditions of life.
In what way will be destroyed, consumed, or devoured?
Is he saying we need to use thought and reason to understand our situation? Look for meaning? Or something else?
And the LORD said to Moses, “How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? I will strike them with pestilence and disown them, and I will make of you a nation far more numerous than they!” But Moses said to the LORD, “When the Egyptians, from whose midst You brought up this people in Your might, hear the news, they will tell it to the inhabitants of that land. Now they have heard that You, O LORD, are in the the midst of this people; that You, O LORD, appear in plain sight [אֲשֶׁר־עַ֨יִן בְּעַ֜יִן] [literally, eye to eye] when Your cloud rests over them and when You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. If then You slay this people entirely, the nations who have heard Your fame will say, ‘It must be because the LORD was powerless to bring that people into the land He had promised them on oath that He slaughtered them in the wilderness.’ Therefore, I pray let my Lord’s forbearance be great …
What is the meaning of the term amen? Rabbi Ḥanina says: It is an acronym of the words: God, faithful King [El Melekh ne’eman].
- With regard to the verse: “And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed: The Lord, the Lord, compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness and truth, extending loving-kindness to thousands of generations…and Moses made haste and bowed his head toward the earth and prostrated himself”(Exodus 34:6–8), the Gemara asks:What did Moses see in these attributes that caused him to hastily prostrate himself?
Rabbi Ḥanina ben Gamla says: He saw the attribute of slow to anger; and the Rabbis say: He saw the attribute of truth. It is taught in a baraita in accordance with the opinion of the one who said: He saw the attribute of slow to anger, as it is taught in a baraita: When Moses ascended on high, he discovered the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting and writing: Slow to anger. Moses said before Him: Master of the Universe, is Your attribute of slow to anger only to be used for the righteous? God said to him: It is an attribute even for the wicked. Moses said to Him: Let the wicked be doomed. God said to him: Now, you will see that you will need this, as ultimately you will reconsider that statement.
When the Jewish people sinned in the sin of the spies and Moses asked God to forgive them, the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Moses: Didn’t you say to Me that the attribute of slow to anger is for the righteous alone? They are not worthy of atonement.
Moses said before Him: Master of the Universe, and isn’t this what You said to me: It is an attribute even for the wicked? And that is the meaning of that which is written: “And now, I pray You, let the power of my Lord be great, as You have spoken, saying” (Numbers 14:17). Moses was repeating God’s promise with regard to His employment of the attribute of slow to anger.
Moshe Leib of Sasov, 18th century, Ukraine
“[It must be] because the Eternal was not able.” In the midrash [it says] :
Moses said, “Master of the worlds! ‘You are seen eye to eye’ [Numbers 14:14].” What is the implication of eye to eye? Resh Lakish explained: [Moses said] “Look here, the scales are evenly balanced! You say, “I will smite him with plague’ [Numbers 14:12], and I say, ‘Please forgive’ [Numbers 14:19]. Let us see who will stand!” In fact, it says: “And the Eternal said, ‘I have forgive as you have asked'” [Number 14:20]. Thus far the quotation from the midrash.
To understand this matter, we need to proceed by way of a parable. A king of flesh and blood must enforce the rules of the state in order that people do not swallow each other up, along the lines of the Mishnah in [Pirkei] Avot [3:2], “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without the fear of it, people would swallow each other alive.” But on the surface, what does it matter to him, that he should intervene in a dispute that does not [directly] concern him? But the fear always hangs over him that the matter might extend to his authority. This does not apply to the Sovereign beyond all sovereigns, the Holy One. Because God possesses all power, God does not need [to impose] the rules of state out of fear; God produced the rules for the good of humanity and gave them the Torah. This is the meaning of the midrash: “The scales are evenly balanced” — Moses our teacher said to the Holy One: “Why do you want to punish Israel? If they sin, what effect does that have on You? But if [You want to punish them] in order to clear them of sin, then I say, ‘Please, forgive,’ then they will also be clear of sin! ‘Let us see who will stand.'” Immediately, the Holy One said, “I have forgiven as you have asked.”
Why does God need to punish? What does punishment accomplish? What tips the scales between punishment and forgiveness?