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Parashat Shelach 5772 – 06/13/2012

Parashat Shelach


Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

And now, may the strength of my Lord be magnified as You have spoken, saying: Hashem, Slow to Anger, Abundant in Kindness, Forgiver of Iniquity and Willful Sin and Who cleanses – but does not cleanse completely, recalling the iniquity of parents on children to the third and fourth generations…

And Hashem said: I have forgiven in accordance with your word.  (14:17-8,20)

   Moshe mentioned among the Attributes of Gd, Slow to Anger and Abundant in Kindness but he did not mention Truth, for in fact according to the Attribute of Truth they would be liable to death. … [He also omitted Compassionate and Gracious]  Perhaps Moses knew that justice was outstretched against them and Gd would not forgive permanently; therefore he requested only slowness to anger, i.e. that {Gd] not “kill them as one man” and not “slaughter them like sheep in the Wilderness” i.e. that they should die in a plague.  And because [Moses] now requested only that Gd demonstrate slowness to anger, Gd said to him salachti kid’vareicha – I shall be for them Slow to Anger and Abundant in Kindness [but I will not forgive them completely.] (Ramban ad loc)

Sometimes it appears as if the narrative parts of the Torah (actually all of Tanach) are a story of one missed opportunity after another.  If only Moshe had spoken to the rock as Gd told him…  If only Eve hadn’t listened to the serpent… If only the Spies hadn’t spoken slander about the Land, we would have entered it and could never have been displaced.  Moshe Rabbeinu would have led us in, built the Temple, and the pristine state of mankind prior to Adam’s sin would have been restored.

The Messianic Age would have come and we’d have been enjoying it ever since.  Reading these stories year after year can get pretty frustrating; living their consequences is more frustrating still.

In our passage, according to Ramban’s interpretation, we seem to have another example of a missed opportunity – this time on the part of Moshe Rabbeinu.  In the aftermath of the Spies’ slander, Gd threatens to wipe out the Israelites and to create a new Israel from Moshe Rabbeinu’s stock alone.  As he did after the incident of the golden calf, Moshe prayed to avert the decree.  In that earlier incident, Gd taught Moshe, and us, the 13 Attributes and promised that we should recite them (and internalize them!) whenever we are visited with troubles, and Gd would be merciful to us.  However now, Moshe Rabbeinu appears to cherry-pick the 13 Attributes, leaving out Truth, Compassion and Graciousness.  Why?  He did leave in the “visiting the sins of the fathers on the children,” thus, as it were, condemning future generations for punishment on the basis of the Spies’ slander and the people’s reaction to it.  And, Ramban concludes, when Gd tells Moshe “I have forgiven according to your word” (this phrase is used repeatedly in the Yom Kippur liturgy to indicate that if we sincerely ask for forgiveness and repair our thinking and behavior, Gd will forgive our sins) – it only means that “since you made a limited request, you’ll get a limited response”!!

Ramban explains that Moshe Rabbeinu did the best he could with the material he had to work with.  The sin of the Spies was actually more egregious than the golden calf, for it not only evinced lack of faith in Gd, it centered about Israel’s refusal to undertake the mission Gd had given it and their avowed attempt to “return to Egypt” – that is, to life before the giving of the Torah.  This kind of backsliding would have vitiated the very purpose of the Exodus, the very purpose of the giving of the Torah, and, according to our Sages, the very purpose of creation.  It was impossible for him to temporize or minimize  the Israelites’ culpability; all he could do was to defer and spread out the punishment and avoid total annihilation of the nation.

All this is well and good, but it leaves open the question why history has to unfold this way, time and time again.  Here I can only offer a suggestion.  It appears to me that in each example of humanity’s communal failure in the Biblical narrative we find a progressive moving away from Gd. 

  • Adam sinned and fell from the spiritual perfection that should have been his eternally, yet he still lived for 930 years in intimate communion with Gd. 
  • The Israelites, at the giving of the Torah were restored to the same level of closeness to Gd as Adam, but unfortunately it was an unstable situation (perhaps because they had not purified themselves sufficiently to be able to sustain this level; reaching it was more a gift from Gd than an earned reward?) and 40 days later they were again estranged from Gd and dancing around a golden calf.
  • The Spies’ slander of the Land was a further distancing from Gd, one whose effects persist to this day, as our Sages have Gd saying: “You wept unnecessarily on this night; I will make it a night of real weeping for the generations – our tradition tells us this was the night of Tisha B’Av, the day both Temples were destroyed.
  • Under Kings David and Shlomo the Jewish kingdom was expanded and consolidated, and the First Holy Temple was built, uniting Gd and His people.  A scant 4 centuries later the kingdom was split, the bulk of it was exiled, and Gd had pulled back so far from His Temple that it was destroyed completely.
  • Under Ezra, whom our tradition tells us was comparable to Moshe Rabbeinu, the Babylonian exile ended and the Second Temple was built.  Alas, only a small fraction of the Jewish people returned to Israel, and the Presence of Gd was not felt in the Second Temple to nearly the degree that it was in the first.  After about the same amount of time that society had broken down to the extent that even the attenuated level of closeness to Gd could not be sustained, the Second Temple was destroyed, and our current exile began.

What is the purpose of this movement?  I once heard a beautiful analogy by the physicist Prof. E. C. G. Sudarshan.  He said “a mother holds her child close to her most of the time, but sometimes she holds him away, so she can see him.”  It is one thing to be close to Gd, and certainly we are all required to strive to purify ourselves so that we can achieve this closeness.  And more than we want to be close to Gd, Gd wants to draw us close to Himself.  But there is something to be said for distance as well.  Separation is necessary for there to be a relationship.  Just as Gd separated Eve out from Adam’s side, so they could come face-to-face in relationship with one another, so, perhaps, Gd allows us to distance ourselves from Him, to individuate, to become, as it were, independent and separate from Gd, so that we can have a relationship with Him.  In other words, to come back to Gd, we first have to separate from Gd.

Gd is One and completely Self-sufficient.  For reasons no created being will likely ever understand, Gd takes pleasure in leaving space within Himself for the finite to exist, to differentiate, to ramify, to individuate, and eventually to return to a higher level of integration with Gd.  When the weight of our history bears down on us, we must never forget the teaching of our Prophets, that the end of all the exile, the end of separation from Gd, will be the bliss of reintegration in the days of Moshiach, may they come speedily in our day.

Pirke Avot, Chapter 3

Mishnah 5

R. Chanin ben Chachinai says:

One who remains awake at night, or walks upon a lone path or turns his heart to emptiness brings death upon himself.

R. Lau points out that the nighttime is especially conducive to learning Torah, therefore one should be especially careful not to waste one’s nights in idleness.  Rambam says that “…a person acquires the preponderance of his wisdom at night” (Hil. Talmud Torah 3:13).  The nighttime is quiet time, when it is easier to concentrate, without the distractions of the workaday world, the noise and the traffic and all our myriad responsibilities.  It is certainly true that we should never turn our heart to emptiness, but when we consider the worth of all of our endeavors in this world, compared to the infinite value of our activities in and for the spiritual world which is our real home, we see that much of what we get wrapped up in is, in fact, emptiness.  Nevertheless, some of that emptiness is necessary so that we can survive in this world and accomplish our mission.  We should, nevertheless, be sure to set aside times of silence when we can fill our souls with the bliss of the infinite.