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In the Midbar - For a Long Time

By: Rav Yonatan Horovitz

Anyone with a minimal knowledge of Torah, when asked as to the story in Parshat Sh'lach-Lecha, will respond by saying "Chet Ham'raglim" or the sin of the spies. By this they refer not merely to the wrongdoing of the spies themselves but rather to the cries of the nation and the resultant decree of Hashem that Am Yisrael will wander in the desert for a total of forty years.

Parshat Sh'lach-Lecha, however, does not end after this episode. We find several mitzvoth at the end of the parsha and one narrative. The sections found at the end can be listed as follows:

  • The mitzvah of nesachim (libations brought with the sacrifices)
  • The mitzvah of challah
  • The korban brought by an individual or the entire congregation after having committed a sin out of ignorance (bishgaga)
  • The punishment for committing a sin on purpose as an act of rebellion
  • The episode of the "mekoshesh" (The man who transgressed Shabbat)
  • The mitzvah of tzizit

The obvious question is what is the connection between these mitzvoth and how do they relate to the main theme of the parsha?

Let us start by thinking about the mood of Am Yisrael after they had been told that they would not enter Eretz Yisrael but rather their children will do so in another forty years time. How would they react? The obvious conclusion would be that it's not really going to happen. Forty years is a long time and lots of things can happen in that time period.  Much of the nation may have felt cynical and skeptical about the entire plan.

For this reason, the first thing Hashem does after decreeing that they will be in the desert for forty years is to give them two mitzvoth  which are dependent on entering the land. The mitzvoth of nesachim and challah are both "mitzvoth hateluyot ba'aretz" (See Bamidbar 15, 2 and 18). By presenting these mitzvoth at this time Hashem is reassuring Am Yisrael that despite the delay they will indeed live in Eretz Yisrael. Rav Yitzchak Abarbanel, in citing this idea, explains that whilst the mitzvah of nesachim only comes into effect after the land has been conquered and divided, the mitzvah of challah was to be fulfilled as soon as they entered Eretz Yisrael. This explains the need for both these mitzvoth to be listed here.

Moving along, the reason for the harsh decree was because Am Yisrael, by expressing their refusal to conquer Eretz Yisrael exhibited a form of rebellion against God. This is how Abarbanel explains the connection between the next sections and our parsha. All the commentators in the wake of Chazal explain that the sin referred to is Avoda Zara, a rebellion against Hashem. We see that, on the one hand, if such a sin is committed in ignorance, there is a method of atonement prescribed and forgiveness is assured.  If, on the other hand, the sin was committed out of a sense of negation of God's authority then the sinner will receive the harshest of punishments, karet.

The next section deals with the mekoshesh eitzim. Without entering into a detailed discussion as to what exactly he did, it was clearly a transgression of Shabbat.  From the nature of the punishment he received, it is clear that the sin was committed intentionally.  Why did they not know that he deserved to be put to death?  This has already been stated categorically in the Torah (See Shemot 31:14).

In order to answer this question, let us return to the opening words of this section.  "Vayiheyu bnei Yisrael bamidbar", the children of Israel were in the wilderness (Bamidbar 15:32) . Why is the Torah stating the obvious? We know where Am Yisrael is! It would seem that this statement that they were in the desert is crucial to understanding the motives of the man who desecrated Shabbat. As stated above, Am Yisrael now must come to terms with the fact that they will be wandering in the wilderness for many more years. This fellow thought that if they would not now be going into Eretz Yisrael, then the whole of the Divine plan is no longer valid. There is no reason to keep the Torah. After all, if we are simply here in the desert waiting to die, why bother with Torah and mitzvoth? It is for this reason, to rebel against God and demonstrate that the Torah was no longer relevant, that he transgressed Shabbat in public.

This now allows us to explain why the people were unsure as to the punishment he deserved.  First of all, there may have been those who agreed with him; they too questioned the relevance of the mitzvoth now that they were all destined to die in the midbar.  An alternate reason is based on the juxtaposition to the previous section. As cited previously, the Torah delineates the atonement or lack thereof of one who is involved in Avoda Zara. There the Torah states:

Vehanefesh asher ta'aseh beyad rama… et Hashem hu megadef…. Ki d'var Hashem baza… hikaret tikaret… One who performs this sin with a high hand… he has blasphemed against God… he has despised the word of God … he will be cut off. (Bamidbar 15:30-31)

We are familiar with the parallel between the desecration of Shabbat in the public arena and idol worship (See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, the end of Hilchot Shabbat). If an act of idol worship is considered a form of rebellion against God, then surely so is this act of desecration of Shabbat. If the mekoshesh was questioning the very essence of Torah and mitzvoth, then surely he too could be treated like the idol worshipper and deserves karet. But who exacts punishment - the people or Hashem Himself?

Hashem's response is crystal clear on two levels. The Torah is as relevant now as it was before the decree to remain in the desert. And it is up to the people to exact punishment. To emphasize this, the entire congregation is called to stone the mekoshesh to death.  Kol Haeda are called to witness his demise and the death of the ideology that he espoused.

This leaves us to explain the relevance of the mitzvah of tzizit to our parsha. Here we find the task much simpler.  There are many linguistic similarities between the episode of the spies and the commandment to wear tzizit.  I urge you to investigate these and come up with your own conclusions as to the meaning of these parallels. For those of you who wish to take the short route, I recommend Rav Amnon Bazak's shiur on this subject which can be found here:

As he so poignantly asks: "Would the spies have sinned in this way had they gone off to the Land wearing tzitzit?"

Shabbat shalom, Rav Yonatan


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