SALT - Thursday, 2 Av 5780 - July 23, 2020


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  • Rav David Silverberg
            In his address to the people in Parashat Devarim, Moshe speaks at great length about cheit ha-meragelim – the sin of the scouts, the time when Benei Yisrael became frightened over what awaited them in the Land of Israel, and decided they did not wish to proceed.  God punished the nation severely, decreeing that they would remain in the desert for another thirty-nine years until that entire generation perished, and only their children would enter the land.  Moshe’s elaboration on cheit ha-meragelim at this time, just before his death, is readily understandable in light of the fact that Benei Yisrael were now once again preparing to enter the Land of Israel, just as they were when the spies were sent.  His greatest fear at this point was a recurrence of cheit ha-meragelim – that the nation would again be frightened and decide they did not want to cross into the land.  And so he impressed upon them the gravity of the mistake made by their parents who were convinced by the spies to reject Eretz Yisrael, on account of which God decreed another thirty-nine years of wandering in the desert.
            In recounting the event of cheit ha-meragelim, Moshe describes how the people cried, “Be-sin’at Hashem otanu hotzi’anu mei-eretz Mitzrayim” – “It is out of the Lord’s hatred for us that He brought us from the land of Egypt” (1:27).  Upon hearing of the great military power of the Canaanite peoples, Benei Yisrael concluded that God was bringing them to Canaan in order to be killed, because He “hated” them.
            Seforno makes a brief remark to explain why the people reached this conclusion – one which may shed an entirely new light upon the nature of cheit ha-meragelim.  He writes, “It is out of the Lord’s hatred for us – because of our having worshipped idols in Egypt.”  According to Seforno, Benei Yisrael’s view of their condition was rooted in guilt, in their awareness of their sinful past, as idol-worshippers in Egypt.  (While the Torah does not speak of Benei Yisrael worshipping idols in Egypt, this is mentioned in a prophecy of Yechezkel, chapter 20.)  They assumed that God “hated” them because of their past, and this is what led them to mistrust Him and refuse to follow Him into Eretz Yisrael.
            If so, then Benei Yisrael’s sin stemmed from misplaced piety.  They thought they were being exceedingly righteous in deciding that their past religious failings made them unworthy of the miracles that were necessary for them to enter into and settle the Land of Israel.  According to Seforno, Benei Yisrael rebelled against God at the time of cheit ha-meragelim because they perceived Him as vengeful and unforgiving, such that they felt incapable of earning His assistance and His kindness.  They saw their refusal to enter the land as the “pious” decision, reflecting an appropriate level of yir’at Shamayim (fear of God) and an accurate assessment of the gravity of their past sins, which rendered them undeserving of God’s love.
            Seforno’s comments show how misplaced piety can result in grave mistakes, how it is possible to severely sin by acting in a manner which one regards as righteous.  But more specifically, Seforno’s insight into cheit ha-meragelim perhaps alerts us to the dangers of excessive guilt over past mistakes.  Of course, the doctrine of sakhar va-onesh (reward and punishment) establishes that we are held accountable for our conduct, and the fear of punishment is appropriate and even important as an impetus for repentance.  At the same time, however, we must have faith in the institution of repentance, and believe that God forgives us when we sincerely regret our mistakes and seek to improve.  And, we must believe that God never “hates” us, as Benei Yisrael assumed at the time of cheit ha-meragelim, regardless of what we may have done in the past.  Even if we had worshipped idols, as Benei Yisrael did in Egypt, this would not in any way justify the feeling that God “hates” us and seeks to cause us harm.  Moshe emphasizes later in Sefer Devarim (8:5), “You shall know in your heart that just as a man punishes his son, the Lord your God punishes you.”  The Semag lists this imperative as one of the 248 Biblical commands (asei 17), requiring tziduk ha-din – affirming God’s justice during times of misfortune, recognizing that God deals with us as a loving father, without hatred and vengeance.  We are to trust in God’s love and compassion, and firmly believe that He loves us as a parent despite our mistakes and failings.  Guilt should never lead us to assume that God “hates” us.  We must trust in His unconditional love, in His willingness to forgive our wrongdoing, and in His commitment to care for us despite the mistakes that we make.