27 Tamuz 5773
Parashat Mattot-Mas'ei: Rectifying the sin of the spies
by Daniel Pinner
Whether Parashot Mattot and Mas’ei are read together (as they are this year, as in most years) or separately (as they are in less than one-quarter of years), both are invariably read during the Three Weeks – the period from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av during which we mourn for our lost independence and devastated Land. This is surely not coincidental: when Chazal set the annual Torah-reading cycle towards the end of the Second Temple period, they divided up the Torah such that certain parashot always coincide with specific junctures of our calendar.
This is the time of year when, more than ever, we suffer the consequences of the sin of the spies. They delivered their evil report a year and four months after the Exodus, on the 8th of Av 2449 (1311 B.C.E.), and that evening, the 9th of Av, the entire nation wept in despair. “God said: You cried this night for no reason?! – I will yet give you a reason to cry on this night throughout the generations!” (Ta’anit 29a, Sotah 35a, Sanhedrin 104b; Bamidbar Rabbah 16:20 et. al.).
As we approach the 9th of Av, we ask yet again: How could the spies have been so disastrously wrong?
They were certainly no fools, neither did they lack faith in God. But they made erroneous assessments based on their subjective interpretation of the situation: that the generation was not on a sufficiently high spiritual level to merit Divine intervention; that in the desert they were the leaders of the nation, and their fear of losing that status in the Land of Israel caused them [subconsciously] to sabotage the entry into the Land; that they realized that entering and possessing the Land would inevitably involve warfare, that people would therefore die, and that pikuach nefesh (saving lives) over-rides all the mitzvot – including the mitzvah o fliving in Israel.
And now, almost forty years on,after that generation had died out, Moshe at last had the opportunity to rectify the sin of the spies.
“Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Avenge the vengeance of the Children of Israel against the Midianites; after that you will be gathered unto your people. Moshe spoke to the nation saying: Arm men from among yourselves for the army, and they will be against Midian to inflict Hashem’s vengeance against Midian” (Numbers 31:1-3). This was the appropriate response for the Midianites’ sending their daughters to seduce the Jewish men, as a consequence of which 24,000 Jews died in the resulting plague (25:1-9).
God was telling Moshe that he had one final task to fulfil, and upon completing it he would die. Now Moshe could easily have delayed fighting against the Midianites, and for very convincing reasons. After all it takes time to put an army together, to select the best commandos, to train the soldiers, to build up combat units, and so forth.
Then, as every military commander knows, before embarking on any mission the army must gather intelligence, determine the enemy’s strength, send raiding parties to attrit the enemy forces, prepare field command posts, and so forth.
By that time winter would already have set in, and winter with its uncomfortable weather and short days is no time to initiate conflict. Winter is for training, consolidating forces, and besieging the enemy.
Moshe could easily have delayed the attack against the Midianites for months if not for years, and thus extended his own life. As the Midrash says, “Had Moshe wanted to live for several more years, he would have lived, because God said to him, ‘Avenge the vengeance of the Children of Israel against the Midianites; after that you will be gathered unto your people’. God made his death contingent on the vengeance against Midian. And this teaches you Moshe’s praises: he did not say, I will delay the Children of Israel’s vengeance against the Midianites so that I may live. Instead, immediately ‘Moshe spoke to the nation saying: Arm men from among yourselves for the army and they will be against Midian’ (Numbers 31:3)” (Tanhuma, Mattot 3; Bamidbar Rabbah 22:2).
Or in the terse words of Sifrei (Mattot 157), “‘…after that you will be gathered unto your people’ – saying that Moshe’s death would be delayed for the war against Midian; yet nevertheless Moshe went about this task joyfully, as it says ‘Moshe spoke to the nation saying: Arm [‘hechaltzu’] men from among yourselves…’ And the word ‘hechaltzu’ means ‘hasten’”.
We have translated the word “hechaltzu” as “arm” (following Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Targum Yerushalmi, the Radak in his lexicon Sefer ha-Shorashim, and others), though it has a few different meanings. As the Sifrei points out, it also connotes “hasten” (the Targum Onkelos and Targum Yonatan both translate into Aramaic as “zarez”, meaning both “arm” and “hasten”). It also connotes “draw out, separate”.
The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 34:15) gives four meanings for the verb: to release, to arm, to redeem, and to grant respite. Maybe Moshe intended all these, deliberately using this very ambiguous verb laden with meanings. He called on one thousand men from each tribe to separate themselves for this task, to release themselves from whatever else they may have been involved with, to hasten to arm themselves, to redeem the nation, and to grant them respite from their enemies.
By acting thus, Moshe was in effect rectifying the sin of the ten spies whom he had sent forth on their mission all those decades ago. By their self-seeking subjective manipulation of the situation they had doomed the generation to death in the desert. And now Moshe, with his selfless dedication to the task that God had set for him, knowing full well that by hastening this war against Midian he was hastening his own death, finally nullified the spies’ evil counsel.
It is no coincidence that immediately after the war with Midian, the next event that the Torah records was that the tribes of Rueben and Gad, seeing the excellent pastureland of trans-Jordan (the territory previously occupied by Moab, Midian, Bashan, and the Amorites) desired to settle there.
Moshe foresaw a potentially disastrous situation approaching. After defeating the Midianites, after Moshe had willingly given his life to rectify the sin of the spies, these tribes’ request seemed to be a re-run of that self-same debacle. Was that disaster going to recur? Was the nation, at the very threshold of the Land of Israel, going to be doomed to yet more decades in the desert? Was Moshe’s self-sacrifice worthless, to be squandered by two self-seeking tribes?
Moshe reminded the tribes of Rueben and Gad of what had transpired all those decades earlier and the punishment the entire nation endured as a result, and warned them against repeating it (Numbers 32:6-15). Those two tribes assured Moshe that they were neither rejecting the Land of Israel nor shirking their duty to fight for it alongside their brethren: “We will build sheepfolds for our flocks here and cities for our children, then we will arm ourselves swiftly ahead of the Children of Israel until we shall bring them to their place…” (vs. 16-17).
Under these circumstances – the tribes of Rueben and Gad promising to be the pioneers, the first to cross into Israel, the first to fight for the Land, and only after the conquest was completed with the nation dwelling securely would they return to their children and livestockin trans-Jordan – Moshe gave them his blessing.
Five weeks ago, in Parashat Sh’lach Lecha, we read of the sin of the spies. In less than two weeks, the 9th of Av, we will commemorate the day on which they committed that sin. In previous years we have commemorated the 9th of Av by fasting and mourning. Maybe this year we will already commemorate the 9th of Av by feasting and rejoicing. We still have time to make this momentous change before the dreaded day begins. Events are moving swiftly, and no one can envisage what the world will look like, certainly not what Israel and the Middle East will look like, a year from now or even a few days from now.
But this week’s parashah shows us how to rectify the sin of the spies, which is the crucial prerequisite for the nation to inherit the Land of Israel.