This week we begin the last of the five books of the Torah, called Devarim (Deuteronomy), which is Moshe’s farewell speech to the Jewish people before he dies. And though there is a debate as to how long it actually took (some say one-day, others say one month), everyone agrees that it was his last address to the new generation of Jews who were about to enter Eretz Yisrael. The previous generation of Jews, the ones who had experienced the Exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the sin of the Golden Calf, etc., had died out as a result of the sin of the Spies, in which the Jews refused to enter Eretz Yisrael. This sin was so severe that Moshe brings it up again in Parshat Devarim. And Moshe doesn’t just gloss over it either. In 18 verses, (1:22-40) Moshe retells the whole story again in great detail. But there is something unusual about Moshe’s retelling of the story. In verse 37, Moshe says “And Hashem also got angry at me because of you, saying ‘Also you, Moshe, will not enter the Land'”. Now wait a second! Noone is going to deny that the sin of the Spies was a severe one, but how can Moshe say that the decree that he would not enter the Land was a result of that sin too–i.e implying that it was the Jews’ fault? Didn’t we read four weeks ago in Parshat Chukat (20:7-13) about the “Waters of Merivah”–where Moshe hit a rock instead of telling it to draw forth water, and as a result, Hashem said (Chukat 20:12) “Because you did not listen to Me and sanctify Me in the eyes of the Jews, you will not enter the Land”? So how can Moshe blame the Jews for his not going into the Land, when he seems to have brought that upon himself?
Ramban (Nachmanides) says that Moshe was not implying that the sin of the Spies was necessarily the direct cause of his not being able to enter the Land. He was merely mentioning as an aside that he too was forbidden to enter the land, just like the Jews were. In other words, since he raised the topic of people being forbidden to enter the Land, he includes himself as someone else who was prevented from entering, but for a different reason. But Ramban also says that Moshe wasn’t letting the Jews off scott-free. He was also implying that the sin of the Spies definitely contributed to his not entering the Land, because it kicked off a chain of events which resulted in his own transgression. After all, that sin caused the Jews to remain in the desert where there was no water, which caused them to rebel and complain to Hashem, which led to Hashem’s commanding Moshe to get water from a rock, which angered Moshe who saw this as a lack of belief on the part of the Jews, which made him hit the rock instead of speaking to it. So Moshe was implying that, although the sin of the Spies was not the direct cause of his own punishment, it was certainly a major contributor in sealing his fate.
But the Ohr HaChaim (R. Chaim Attar) has a problem with this explanation. R. Attar says, if Moshe is talking about his own sin that prevented his entering the Land, that would change the whole topic from the sin of the Spies, to the sin of the Waters of Merivah. “This can’t be”, says R. Attar “because the verses that follow (20:38-40), are still talking about the sin of the Spies. So it wouldn’t make sense that verse 37 switches the topic, only to have verses 38-40 return to the same topic. It must be that Moshe is implying that his not going into the Land, is in fact, a direct result of the sin of the Spies”.
The question is–how can that be? R. Attar mentions a famous Midrash which says that when the Jews cried out against entering the Land, Hashem said “You cried for no reason?! I swear that I will give you a reason to cry in the future”. That reason was the decree that both Temples would be destroyed on the very night that the Jews cried–which happened to be the night of Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av). R. Attar continues to say that, “If Moshe had gone in to the Land and built the Temple, the Temple could not have been destroyed because the power of Moshe and the strength of his relationship with Hashem was such that Hashem would never have let anything built by Moshe be destroyed”. This would have caused a serious problem. The Rabbis tell us that the destruction of both Temples was really an act of mercy on the part of Hashem because the Jews were involved in such severe transgressions (including idolatry, murder, sexual promiscuity, and baseless hatred for one’s fellow Jew), that they really deserved to be destroyed themselves. However, Hashem decided to be merciful and took His anger out on the wood, brick and stone of the Temple instead of the Jews, thus allowing them to live.
But Hashem could only perform this merciful act if He were able to destroy the Temple. Thus, Hashem was in a quandary after the sin of the Spies. On the one hand, He decreed that both Temples would be destroyed in the future. On the other hand, if Moshe led the Jews into the Land and built the Temple, Hashem could not have destroyed the Temple. Under that scenario, instead of taking His anger out on the Temple, Hashem would have had no choice but to take His anger out on the Jews themselves. Therefore, Moshe says, “Because your sin caused the decree of the destruction of the Temples, and because my going in would prevent that from happening, it was decreed after the sin of the Spies, that I would also die in the desert, so that I would not be able to enter the Land and build the Temple”. So according to R. Attar, Moshe was indeed saying that the sin of the Spies was a direct cause of his not going into the Land.
But this leaves us with an even bigger problem. Was Moshe really prevented from entering the Land, solely based on what the Jews did? Where is the justice in that? And if that is the case, why do we attribute his not going in to the sin of the Waters of Merivah?
Back in parshat Chukat, by the incident of the Waters of Merivah, R. Attar explains that if Moshe had spoken to the rock instead of hitting it, the resulting sanctification of Hashem’s name would have been so great, that the Jews would have gone back to the spiritual level they were on before the sin of the Spies. As a result, not only would they have been able to enter the Land, but so would Moshe, since now there would be no urgency to keep him out. Moshe’s hitting the rock was like a reenactment or a reinforcement of the sin of the Spies and so he was justifiably punished with the same punishment that the Jews received for committing the sin of the Spies –i.e not going into the Land. So Moshe really did have a hand in causing himself not to enter the Land of Israel, as opposed to it just being the Jews’ fault.
The one question that remains is: Where is the justice in all of this? Did Moshe’s punishment really “fit the crime”? Moreover, is the wiping out of an entire nation “fitting” retribution for crying out against a Land? Is the destruction of both Temples a true measure of justice for our transgressions? How are we supposed to view any “punishment” as fitting, when it sometimes seems like they are much more severe than is required?
A survivor of the Holocaust was once explaining how he viewed the Holocaust–i.e. his “reasoning” as to why it came about. He said, “The Rabbis say that the sin of the Golden Calf was so severe, we are still paying it back in every punishment that we get, in every generation. Bearing this in mind, there was once a king who was walking in his garden with his son. During their walk, they suddenly came upon the most exquisite orchid that they had ever seen. The king immediately called for his advisor and asked him how he could guarantee that no one would pick the orchid from the garden, since the garden was open to the public. The advisor said ‘Do you see that huge stone right next to the orchid? Put up a sign saying that anyone who picks the orchid will be stoned with that stone. No exceptions!’ The king thought the idea had merit and did accordingly. A few days later, one of the king’s officers came rushing in to tell the king that someone had picked the orchid. The king was furious and said, “Find the one who did it and stone him immediately”. The officer paused and in a quiet voice said, “It was your son”. A chilling fear gripped the king. On the one hand, he had to stick to his decree. On the other hand, how could he stone his beloved son? He called for the original advisor who came up with the idea and asked him what to do. The advisor thought and thought and finally said, ‘Take the huge stone and crush it up into pebbles and every day we will stone your son with the pebbles, until the stone is all gone.’ The king agreed and added that as a final lesson, his son would be forbidden to enter the garden until the stone was indeed all used up”.
Time passed and the King missed his son terribly and wanted him to come home to the palace. But when the King saw the stone, he saw there was still a big peice which remained. The King did not know what to do. On the one hand, He had to stick to his decree. On the other hand, his desire to have his son back home was overwhelming. In the end, the King’s love for his son won and he had the rest of the stone thrown on his son, causing many broken bones and serious bruises. After a three-year recuperation period for his son, the King came to him, opened his arms and said ‘My child, it’s time to come home'”.
The survivor said “When the Jews sinned with the Golden Calf, Hashem declared that we would have to pay back the sin with tragedy and hardship (a huge stone). As a result, throughout our history we’ve been paying for that sin in every punishment we get. Part of that retribution included having our Temples destroyed and being exiled from the Land of Israel. Came the year 1933, and Hashem could take it no longer–He wanted us to finally come back home to His Land which had remained without His people for two thousand years. But Hashem looked at the stone and saw that it was still too big. What was He to do? On the one hand, He had to stick to His decree. On the other hand, His desire to have His people back home was overwhelming. In the end, His love for His people won and He took the rest of the large stone and threw it on them. That was the Holocaust. And after a three-year recuperation period (in 1948) Hashem opened His arms to His people and said ‘My children, it’s time to come home'”.
Next week, we will commemorate the 9th of Av, the day on which both Temples were destroyed and other tragedies occurred. May it be Hashem’s will that we have fulfilled our quota of suffering and that going forward, we experience only the joy and happiness that the coming of Moshiach will bring.
Shabbat Shalom and have a meaningful fast, Shprintza Herskovits