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Shelach Lecha

Author: Esther Ehrman, Sivan 5769/May 2009

Salachti ki devareicha (Shelach Lecha)
Understanding the Pardon and Punishment of the Scouts

Immediately after Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur, we begin our prayers of the Day of Atonement with the following words, repeated 3 times:

Ve nislach lechol adat benei Israel u la ger ha gar betochamki lechol ha am bi shegaga And the whole community of Israel and the stranger living in their midst will be forgiven, for it is an act of inadvertence.

Selach na la avon ha am hazei ke godel chasdeicha ve ka’asher nisata la am hazei miMitzrayim ve ad heina. Forgive, I beseech You, the sin of this people according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness, even as You have borne this people from Egypt till here Ve sham ne’emar And there it is said Vayomer H. ‘salachti ki devareicha’ , And the Lord said: I have pardoned in accordance with your word.

These important statements are all taken from Shelach Lecha, the weekly reading in the Book of Numbers (Chs 14, 15) dealing with the sin of ten out of the twelve Scouts who returned from their mission with a negative report about their chances of conquering the Promised Land. Two questions arise: Why did our Sages consider that these verses were the most appropriate for Yom Kippur? Was the speech by Moses in Shelach Lecha part of a broader agenda?

The first statement (Num.15,v.26) refers to sacrifices brought for sins committed in error and, indeed our repentance on Yom Kippur is largely focused on these. The other two statements (14, v.19,20) are part of the dialogue between the Almighty and Moses. There is no inadvertence in the sin of the Scouts. Although Moses is horrified by the implied lack of faith and the rebellion of both the Scouts and the Community – they plan to appoint a new leader to take them back to Egypt – he pleads with the Lord to avert the evil decree.

In his commentary on this section, the RaMbAN (Nachmanides), refers us to another such dialogue, when Moses pleaded with the Almighty on behalf of the Children of Israel after the sin of the Golden Calf. Let us compare the two dialogues. In both, G-d tells Moses that He will annihilate (achaleim, consume them Ex.32 v.10; akeinu ba dever ve orisheinu, strike them with pestilence and drive them out of existence, Num.14,v.12) and that He will set up a new nation with the descendants of Moses. In both dialogues, Moses argues that recognition of G-d by the nations, in particular Egypt, will be affected if the Israelites are destroyed.

In the earlier episode of the Golden Calf, Moses seems to be bold. He is concerned not just that the people be pardoned, but that G-d should remain in their midst. If they are not to be pardoned, mecheini na mi sifrecha, blot me out of your book (Ex.32 v.32) and if G-d’s presence is not in the midst of the people, ‘do not let us go further’ (im ein paneicha holechim, al ta’alinu mi zei. Ex 33,v.15). The purpose of the Exodus from Egypt and of the Covenant between G-d and the Israelites, Moses implies, is to make G-d known to the nations of the world. This cannot happen without the nation chosen for that purpose and it cannot happen if they are led by a messenger (‘I will send an angel – mal’ach – before you…I will no longer go in your midst (Ex.33 v.2,3).

Was the Almighty persuaded? Vayinachem H’ al ha ra’a asher diber la’asot le amo, thereupon G-d let himself be moved (vayinachem) to change His intent regarding the evil He had said He would do to His people (Ex.32 v.14). They would be destroyed and be replaced by a new nation, the descendants of Moses. But Vayinachem does not constitute a pardon. When G-d determined to destroy with the Flood, we are told nichamti ki asitim, I have been moved to alter my decision in making them (Gen.6 v.7).

Moses tells the people that he will try to bring about atonement, ulai akapera, but when he asks for forgiveness – ‘if not, blot me out of Your book’, G-d answers, ‘Whoever has sinned against me, him will I blot out from my book (Ex 32 v.33). There is no statement about forgiveness – and the people are struck with a plague ‘because they had made the calf that Aharon had made’ (v.35). Yet the Almighty agrees to the other request Moses made. His presence will remain in the midst of the people. Gam et ha davar asher dibarta a’asei, ‘I shall fulfil also this word that you have spoken’ (Ex. 17). G-d does not destroy the people and He will stay in their midst. Both requests are granted. Punishment, however, is not withheld and forgiveness is not stated.

In the episode of the Scouts, Moses again uses the argument that the nations need to have confirmed what they already know and have heard, that G-d is in the midst of His nation, His cloud and His pillar of fire protect them. Egypt has witnessed His power; they might wonder whether there is anything greater. Moses argues that the nations will infer that G-d’s power is not able to overcome in Canaan. Moses pleads Yigdal na koach D, let the power of my Lord wax great. Sforno explains this to mean: let Your might be greater here than Your justice. In other words, regardless of the just deserts of the Israelites, the nations need to witness Your might. Moses continues: ‘as You once uttered, G-d, long-suffering and abundant in loving kindness, lifting away sin (avon) and rebellion, yet He remits nothing. He remembers the avon of parents for the children to the third and fourth generation (the second of the Kol Nidre statements). Forgive, I beseech you, the avon of this people according to the greatness of Your loving kindness and even as you granted them forbearance from Egypt until now. And God said: I have pardoned in accordance with your word’ (Num. 14, v.17-21). In his plea, Moses uses both the words that we have in the Yom Kippur Service quoted in our opening paragraphs and the words of the Thirteen Attributes of G-d, These, too, are very prominent on the Day of Atonement, though not exactly as they appear here.

The Thirteen Attributes, as they have come to be known, were first uttered by the Almighty after the sin of the Golden Calf, (Ex.34,v.5-7) in response to a plea by Moses that he might be vouchsafed a knowledge of G-d. It is the full text as it appears in Exodus that we repeat again and again on Yom Kippur. Indeed, the Gemara, Tractate Rosh Hashana, 17B, tells us ‘Whenever Israel sins, they should pray before Me in this way [with the words of the Thirteen Attributes] and I will forgive them’. Presumably that statement is based on Moses’ plea in Shelach Lecha. When Moses quotes the Attributes in his plea, he omits some of them. RamBaN explains that the situation of the sin of the Scouts did not warrant the full text. For instance, the attribute of ‘truth’ is omitted here, since truth would bring to mind the awful sinfulness of the Scouts. Moses stresses ‘long suffering’, which he makes the opening of the plea, as well as forbearance.

G-d’s response, salachti, I have pardoned, was what Moses wanted to hear. It had not been uttered after the sin of the Golden Calf. Ibn Ezra comments on the word, saying that it does not mean that sins have been wiped out, but that G-d holds back His frustration in order to allow for repentance to become complete. This, again, is very relevant to our Yom Kippur prayers.

‘In accordance with your word’ tells us that the Israelites here, as after the sin of the Golden Calf, will not be destroyed. As was the case there, however, punishment will ensue. The Covenant has not been abrogated. The nation will enter the Promised Land, though not those who doubted, not the generation that came out of Egypt; only their children will live to see the Land. Sins have inevitable consequences. Perhaps it is for that reason that on Yom Kippur we also pray that Repentance, Prayer and Charity may avert the Decree that we deserve.

While it is the full text of the Thirteen Attributes that we insistently repeat on Yom Kippur, we identify with the words of the plea Moses made in Shelach Lecha and therefore set them at the opening of Kol Nidre. We hope that the response to our plea will also be salachti ki devareicha.

We have not yet answered the second of our questions. Did Moses have a broader agenda? Ramban tells us ‘G-d created humanity to acknowledge and give thanks to His name….Were He then to destroy Israel, the peoples of the world would forget His deeds and the whole intention of human creation would be completely defeated’ (text quoted by Nehama Leibowitz, Bamidbar, Shelach 4) . The survival of the Israelites is essential because their mission, to testify to G-d’s presence in the world, is essential. But, a witness needs to be believable. In order to be believable, the witness may not be of questionable character. More, since the testimony entails Divine morality, the witness is expected to exemplify that morality. A wrongdoer is ineffective. Therefore, the punishments, the consequences of wrongdoing are necessary to bring the witness to a fit state to testify. That is what Yom Kippur is about and that is why Moses’ main concern here, as in Exodus, is the survival of the people. He makes no plea for the survival of the sinners themselves.