The narrative of this week’s Parsha is fascinating, and demands an explanation. I hope we can present the story here in a way that makes some sense.
The fledgling nation was yet in its childhood. It had passed its infancy but was far from mature. Moses’ goal was to ultimately wean them from their dependency on him and on G-d’s overt miracles. This was necessary to prepare them for independent life in the Promised Land.
As our sages note, and is evident from the recounting of the story in Deuteronomy, it was neither G-d’s nor Moses’ initiative to send spies into the land before crossing with their families and possessions. This was an initiative of the people. Moses recognized this request as a step toward independence and he welcomed and supported this spirit arousing within the people. Here they were making their first democratic, strategic decision on their own. They assumed leadership, set up a committee and were ready to launch the responsible and independent endeavor of sending spies to the land they were to shortly enter.
At the same time, Moses recognized the danger inherent in this mission. He did not miscalculate or overlook the discomfort of the chosen spies in their mission. They were clearly not excited to enter the Promised Land and their reports would inevitably reflect this mood. Moses even took steps to protect his disciple Joshua from falling under the influence of the others, altering Joshua’s name to one that reflected G-d’s protection from the designs of the spies.
Despite these forebodings, Moses went ahead with the mission. He knew that maturity comes at a price, and in order to grow mistakes must be allowed to occur and lessons taken from them. The nation was capable of making mistakes, and learning from them.
During the last few weeks, our baby Moshe learned to walk. Learning to walk includes taking many falls – that is a necessary part of learning to walk. As a parent, we had to let go of Moshe’s hand. Our responsibility was to determine that his falls would not hurt him more than necessary. We wouldn’t let him walk near steps which he could fall down, or with obstacles strewn on the floor. We made sure the living area is relatively childproof, with no sharp edges or tripping hazards. Moshe would have to do the rest by himself. And he did. He is becoming increasingly steady on his feet. We can safely allow him to navigate more difficult terrain as he polishes his walking skills.
Moses, likewise, had the allow the Israelites to see this through, to flex their muscles of independence, even if it resulted in a fall.
The spies returned, delivered their ominous report and the people took it at face value, despairing from ever successfully entering the land. They bemoaned the inevitable fate of their wives and children, who would be pillaged by the mighty nations of Canaan. They cried bitterly over having left Egypt only to meet death in a suicidal battle.
G-d’s wrath is aroused, and it appears that He has finally lost patience with the people as they are. “Until when will this nation provoke me, and until when will they lack faith in Me after all the signs I performed in their midst. I shall smite them with a plague and destroy them, and from you I will raise a nation, greater and mightier than they.” (Numbers 14:11-12) Moses reasons with the Lord and effectively says, But Egypt and the other nations will hear about this, and they will conclude that for lack of power to conquer the people of Canaan You have smitten the Israelites in the desert. Come on, G-d, You can do better than that. Display an even greater strength and forgive the nation just as You have forgiven them in the past…
Immediately the Lord responds that he has forgiven as requested. However, the price the nation will pay is that this generation will perish in the wilderness and only their children will ultimately inherit the Promised Land.
Incredible! The all knowing, all powerful G-d is routed by Moses’ logic! As though the Lord never ‘thought’ of the effect this would have on the world’s impression of His capabilities. He now ‘changes His mind’ about His response given the persuasive argument of Moses.
The Seforno apparently felt this difficulty, and therefore explains this in a way that the question disappears. Moses misinterpreted the words of The Lord, assuming that the destruction would take place immediately. Therefore he attempts to reason with the Lord. G-d explains that His intent is not to destroy them immediately, nor annihilate them entirely. He was only referring to this particular generation, and His plan was for them to perish in the desert, slowly, over the course of 40 years.
However, this explanation doesn’t entirely fix the problem since G-d expressly says that He will destroy the people and rebuild through the descendents of Moses. This didn’t happen (unless we consider all the children of Israel the children of Moses since he was their teacher and leader). Furthermore, Moses should know better than to assume that G-d had missed something.
I believe we can explain this as follows:
One of our principles of faith is that G-d is unchanging. He is not affected by us; He is entirely independent of us. ‘G-d’s wrath is aroused’ means that G-d acts in a manner such as angry people do. G-d does not actually experience emotions. He does not anger, nor is He pleased by our righteousness. He does not lose patience nor does He have long patience. G-d acts in ways that we interpret as anger (or as pleased) because that is something we can relate to. The Torah uses these terms for the same reason – it is a formula we can understand. We don’t anger G-d by sinning and we don’t appease G-d by repenting.
When G-d signaled to Moses that He would annihilate the people, He was expressing to Moses that by the mechanism of judgment set in motion when the world was created, the people should be destroyed.
Moses responded by throwing another factor into the mix for the attribute of judgment to consider. A major purpose of the world is for man to come to a recognition of G-d and of His presence in the world. This is one reason Abraham was singled out to be the progenitor of this nation, since he showed the qualities of a person who could spread this message to all of mankind. “Because I know him as one who will instruct his household after him to keep the ways of the Lord, to further charity and justice.” (Genesis 18:19)
The despair of the people resulting from the spies’ report was a dismissal of their belief that G-d could and would lead them into the Promised Land and take care of its conquest. They forfeited the privilege of carrying the torch, since they could not maintain that faith in their own ranks. Moses countered that there is another dimension to consider – the impression of the other nations of the world. If the Israelites would not reach their goal of entering the land, the people of the world would judge that as a lack of G-d’s ability.
We should be very familiar with this notion. If a student doesn’t pass an exam we see it as an inability of the school administration to educate the child. It is not fair to the administration, which did its best with a recalcitrant student, but we always hold the bigger person more accountable. Ultimately, the school’s reputation hinges on the success rate of the students’ passing the exams. By strict merit the child might not have passed the exam, but there are always other factors. What is right and just from a black and white perspective does not always pass muster when applied practically. We do not look solely at a student’s performance in the exam when determining his or her grade. We must keep the bigger picture in mind and not shoot ourselves in the leg when passing judgment.
This was the banter reflected in the narrative of the Torah between G-d and Moses. The position G-d took in the narrative was a heavenly perspective, one of pure justice. Moses brought to the table the practical effects of resorting to pure judgment, and its effects on other matters. In a sense, G-d and Moses traded roles, with G-d assuming the narrow-minded, limited perception and Moses assuming the broader view of one who sees the bigger picture.
G-d found Moses’ argument compelling, although He obviously ‘knew’ in advance what the outcome would be. It was important to allow this discussion to be reflected in the Torah to teach us the primacy of Kiddush Hashem, of furthering the good impression we give as ambassadors of G-d’s heavenly kingdom, and that we, as people, have the capacity to push the envelope of justice for the sake of heaven.
If the element of Kiddush Hashem was not worrisome to Moses, if Moses didn’t find it personally troubling, he would not have been able to use that leverage. G-d gave him the opening, leaving his argument vulnerable to that counter-attack, but only if it really came from a place of true concern of G-d’s impression in the world.