Who decides as to the fate of Am Yisrael, Hashem or Moshe? As strange as this question may sound, it is a reasonable issue to contend on reading this week’s parsha.
In response to the sin of the spies Hashem turns to Moshe and tells him with respect to Bnei Yisrael: “akenu badever veorishenu, ve’eseh otecha l’goy gadol veatzum mimmenu”, I will smite them with a plague and wipe them out, and make you into a stronger and larger nation than they. (Bamidbar 14:12) Moshe does not accept this suggestion but petitions Hashem to alter the decree. Claiming that that the nations of Eretz Yisrael will question God’s motives for destroying His people in the wilderness, Moshe argues that the result of such an action will be the desecration of God’s name. The local nations will say that Hashem wiped out his people in the desert out of an inability to bring them successfully into Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, argues Moshe, You, Hashem should have mercy on the people. Hashem concedes, as is stated: “God said, I have forgiven as you say”. (Bamidbar 14:20)
What actually took place as a result of this conversation? Did Moshe in fact raise arguments that Hashem had not thought of?! Such a suggestion seems inconceivable. From a simple reading of the narrative, however, it would appear that Hashem “changed his mind” based on Moshe’s comments. How are we to understand this?
This is not the only occasion in the Torah where we find that such a conversation takes place between Moshe and Hashem. The most obvious parallel is the dialogue which follows the sin of the Golden Calf. At this point Hashem, too, states that He will destroy Bnei Yisrael and build a new nation that will emerge from Moshe. In a similar fashion, Moshe appeals to Hashem not to carry out His plan as intended because of what the people of Egypt would say. In addition Moshe points out that Hashem promised certain things to our Avot and destroying the nation at that stage in history would have broken those promises. Again Hashem concedes to Moshe.
A further example of this is found in next week’s parsha, Korach. Hashem says to Moshe and Aharon: “Separate yourselves from this congregation and I will destroy them instantaneously. They (Moshe and Aharon) fell on their faces and said, God, God of spirits of all man, one man sins and You be wrathful with the whole congregation?” (Bamidbar 16:21-22) Here too, Hashem responds by accepting the counterargument and limits His punishment to the group of Korach, Datan and Aviram.
It may be suggested that in tackling the common question posed on studying these episodes, we should begin with the story of Chet Ha’egel. After all, once Moshe had experienced that event and seen how he can, as if, persuade God in a particular course of action, he was then prepared to do the same in the other two cases. However, we still remain with the basic question: Did Hashem decide to do one thing and then alter his intentions based on Moshe’s intervention? Or did Hashem always intend to punish Bnei Yisrael in the manner which He does following the conversation with Moshe? If the latter is the case it would appear that Hashem merely wanted Moshe to pray on behalf of Bnei Yisrael, thereby leading Him to the already intended response to the sin. [This idea is found in the midrash and quoted in Rashi to Shemot 32:10 ]
One important ramification of this discussion is how we are supposed to relate to the sin and its corresponding punishment. If we take Chet Haegel as the example, did the sin warrant the complete destruction of Bnei Yisrael as Hashem originally suggested, or was the deserved punishment that which Bnei Yisrael actually received. This question leads us to a more fundamental point as what exactly was the sin of the golden calf. The answer to that much discussed issue obviously bears on the type of punishment such a sin would warrant but is far too intricate to deal with here.
Let us now return to our parsha and chet hameraglim. What in fact did Moshe ask for?
As stated above, Moshe raises the subject of what we termed chillul Hashem. He then goes on to say:
“God, long (slow) to anger and most kind, raises (forgives) sin and iniquity, not leaving anything unavenged, He recalls the sins of the fathers to the children and to the third and fourth generation. (Bamidbar 14:18) These words are very similar to those uttered after chet haegel and which we know as the 13 middot of rachamim (attributes of mercy). On a closer examination one finds that these 13 middot harachamim were not stated previously by Moshe but were exclaimed by Hashem Himself in a form of redefinition of the relationship between Bnei Yisrael and God as a result of chet haegel. In our parsha, Moshe turns to Hashem and says: You, God have stated that You are slow to anger and will ponder over the fathers’ sins till future generations. Moshe does not seem to be asking Hashem to revert the sentence but rather to delay it. Why? In other cases Moshe pleads for Bnei Yisrael’s innocence; here merely requests a delay. The answer to this may depend on a more detailed investigation as to the exact sin of the spies which is beyond the scope of this shiur. We will suffice with citing two of our classic mefarshim .
Ramban, in explaining the slight differences between Moshe’s language here and the original 13 middot harachamim, says:
” I do not know why it does not mention rachum vechanun (merciful and compassionate), perhaps Moshe knew that the judgment was pressed upon them and that Hashem will not ever forgive them, therefore he asked only for slowness in anger that He will not kill them as one and not slaughter them like lambs to die in a plague in the desert ..” (Ramban, Bamidbar 14:17) Ramban also explains that for Moshe to invoke “zchut avot” the merits of our forefathers was irrelevant in this case as Am Yisrael had rebelled against the very promise of Eretz Yisrael that Hashem had made to the avot.
Rashbam on the words “I have forgiven as your words” (14:20) comments that Hashem agreed not to smite Bnei Yisrael at once but rather to pay out punishment over forty years.
We conclude from the comments of the mefarshim that Hashem did not in fact change the punishment as a result of Moshe’s intervention. Rather, the terms of the sentence were changed. There was never a suggestion that the concept of Eretz Yisrael should be forfeited nor was there a possibility that this generation would enter Eretz Yisrael after having rejected it. The only “discussion” was as to the terms of the sentence.
This leads us to a fascinating piece of Gemara quoted by Rashi on this parsha:
“Moshe ascended to heaven. He found the Almighty sitting and writing, God, slow to anger. (Moshe) said: (that refers) to the righteous. Hashem responded: even for the wicked. Moshe said: the wicked should perish. Hashem responded: by your life you will yet need to speak. When Am Yisrael sinned (the meraglim) Moshe prayed before Him invoking “slow to anger”. Hashem said to him: but you suggested that this should apply to the righteous. Moshe retorted: and You (Hashem) said, also for the wicked. (Sanhedrin 111a)
[ It should be noted that Rashi adds in the words “egel and meraglim” after the phrase “when Am Yisrael sinned”. We find it hard to explain how Moshe could be referring to the 13 middot harachamim directly following the sin of the golden calf as these were only adopted at a later stage. We have used the interpretation of other commentaries that the sin referred to in the gemara was the sin of the spies.]
This piece of aggada teaches us two things. On the one hand as we have suggested the discussion between Moshe and Hashem centered around how to apply Divine justice in each case and was not about the nature of the punishment. The distinction may be a fine one, but, we suggest, crucial. The concepts of middat hadin and middat harachamim, problematic as they are on a philosophical level, are accepted notions within our tradition. That God should decide to invoke one rather than the other cannot be seen as an about turn on the part of the Almighty but rather part of the Divinic justice process.
On the other hand, this gemara emphasizes the nature of the relationship between Hashem and Moshe. If we were puzzled by the form of conversations we encounter between Moshe and Hashem, the gemara confirms that this is indeed how Moshe spoke to God. This serves to explain why one of the basic tenets of our belief is that Moshe was the “father of the prophets, of those who preceded him and those who followed him” (Rambam, 13 principles of faith). This idea obviously stems from the statement in last week’s parsha, Beha’alotecha:
Lo chen avdi Moshe, bechol beti ne’eman hu. Peh el peh adaber bo…. Not so my servant Moshe, in my whole house he is loyal. Face to face I speak with him…. (Bamidbar 12:7-8)
We have probably raised more questions than we have answered in this shiur and if all we have achieved is the impetus for a more detailed discussion on the topic, dayeinu, it suffices. We have however, noted, first of all, that Moshe had a relationship with Hashem that we find difficult to fathom. Several aspects of that relationship affect how we comprehend certain parts of chumash. We further suggested that the nature of the conversation as to the punishment deserved by Bnei Yisrael was one of form, but not of essence. Divine justice lies, and will always lie, in the domain of God Himself.
Shabbat Shalom – Rav Yonatan