SHLACH L’CHA 5773
In today’s Torah reading we have the story of the 12 spies—a prince from each tribe—that were sent to spy out the Land of Canaan and returned with a pessimistic report. “Yes,” they said, “it is a land flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Efes, but the people that dwell in the land are powerful and their cities are strongly fortified, and do you know who we saw there? The Nefilim.”
Rashi, noting that the root of Nefilim is nafal, “to fall,” explains that the Nefilim were: “the creatures that fell from heaven in the time of Enosh.” “Fell from heaven,” meaning that they were dropped from heaven—people without heaven in them, people without a soul. There were sages that believed that these Nefilim—the ones who fell from heaven—were extra-terrestrials from another world.
Whoever the Nefilim were, the spies were afraid their people would be killed by them if they were to enter the land and so they persuaded their people not to go. But when they heard Gd tell them (Numbers 14:34-35) that they would be punished, saying, “According to the number of days that you spied out the land, 40 days you shall pay for your sins—a year for each day, namely, 40 years...there in the wilderness shall you die,” they seemed to have second thoughts.
I can’t resist sharing with you the comment of the Kli Yakar—a 16th century commentator—who suggests that this mission of the spies failed because it was made up of only men. They should have sent women, as well, for women “know how to love the land of Israel much more than the men.”
What follows the announcement of the punishment by Moses is truly fascinating. Vayashkimu Vaboker Vayaalu El Rosh Hahar, “The people arose early the next day and headed up the hills toward Canaan saying, Hinenu V’alinu El Hamakom Asher Amar Hashem, ‘We are prepared to go up to the place to which Gd had spoken,’ Ki Chatanu, ‘because we were wrong, we sinned.’” (Numbers 14:40)
In other words, they said, “Sorry, Gd, we really didn’t mean what we said. Now we’ll go into the land.” Moses warned them that if they were to proceed, they would indeed be killed. Many darted forward nevertheless and were killed, while the remaining Israelites were sent back into the desert to wander for 40 years.
One could easily question Gd’s action here. Isn’t Gd being a little inflexible? Didn’t the spies express remorse saying Chatanu, “we sinned?” What more does Gd expect than an apology?
According to a very strange and fascinating Midrash found in the Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 4:7), sometimes an apology is not enough. It’s often a cheap way of getting yourself off the hook, a quick way to get someone off your back, a shortcut to easing your conscience. It’s a way to protect the sinner from further criticism because once they confess, they can no longer be accused.
What Gd wanted of the Israelites was much more than an apology. He wanted a serious confrontation with the sin that prevented them from going into the land. What was that sin? Their fear of death exceeded their faith in Gd, even after all that they had been through with the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt and hearing Gd speak to them the 10 Commandments on Sinai. It would take 40 years to elevate to that level of faith in Gd.
How did they do that? The Midrash says that Gd instructed each Israelite to dig a grave every year on Tisha B’Av—the 9th of Av, the anniversary of the spies’ report—lay down in it and remain there until morning. Each year this was done. Each year, all but 15,000 people would emerge alive the next day, until 40 years later, all of the spies’ generation had died.
On Tisha B’Av of the 40th year, the people entered their graves and all emerged alive the next morning. The people at 1st thought they had miscalculated the day and decided to lay in their graves for another night. Imagine the faith needed to do that. Well, all awoke alive. Still uncertain, they lay down for another night, and another, and another until the 15th day of Av when they realized—seeing the full moon—that the 9th day of Av must certainly have passed and Gd’s decree must have been lifted. The people rejoiced, knowing that they could now all enter the land.
What this strange, even morbid, Midrash teaches is that only after the Israelites confronted their fatal flaw—by digging their own graves and facing their fear of death—would they be permitted to enter the land. Apologizing wasn’t enough; they had to demonstrate a transformation in their character by confronting that which brought their downfall. Rhetoric had to be followed up by action.
Simply saying, Chatati, “I sinned, and I’m sorry,” may only be a shield against further criticism. We should be patient when someone apologizes to us, but, at the same time be most cautious while we wait to see if their actions confirm the sincerity of their apology.
Today the Obama administration is confronting a storm of 3 scandals: the Bengazi affair where we failed to come to the aid of our diplomat and his staff, and later misled the public by not calling it a terrorist attack; the IRS scandal where conservative groups and groups that supported Israel were singled out for audits; and the AP and Fox affair where reporters critical of the White House were targeted. While it is true that the president does not micro manage the government and it is possible that he wasn’t directly involved in any of this, why can’t he issue an apology with a strong promise to get to the bottom of it? I have heard a great deal of hemming and hawing from the Whitehouse, but not one word of a sincere apology.
Do you know about the ongoing controversy between China and Japan? Only in the past 2 decades has Japan acknowledged many of its past brutalities—especially in WWII—including medical atrocities, use of poison gas and forcing women into prostitution. The apologies, however, were deemed not sufficient by China because they didn’t mention the word “apology,” because they lacked the explicit mention of China as the victim of Japanese aggression and because they were not written apologies.
Adding fuel to the fire, Japan’s new prime minister Shinzo Abe, said he prefers to leave historical issues up to historians and avoid comment. And so the enmity between the 2 countries continues.
I don’t know if you are aware of a recent scandal in the Jewish community. It has just come out that an anonymous letter sent to the Holocaust Victims Claims Conference’s Frankfurt office in 2001 identified 5 cases where restitution was approved for ineligible claimants. There were several subsequent allegations of fraud. I read an article about a woman in Brooklyn, NY, who helping many fill out fraudulent claims for a kickback.
Julius Berman, the chairman of the Claims Conference board, insisted he’s not to blame for botching the investigation into this fraud that he knew about for several years. “Somebody dropped the ball. That’s the issue,” Berman said in a new interview. “My conscience is totally clean on the role I played.” Why couldn’t he just apologize on behalf of the Claims Conference board and promise to get to the bottom of it instead of trying to cover his behind?
As my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg wrote: I have the guts to say they are a bunch of thieves. I am a child of Holocaust survivors. For years I have yelled and screamed that there has been hanky-panky going on while Holocaust survivors were denied their due. How stupid are we not to protest? A lot of people belong in jail. Holocaust survivors are going without food and medicine while the thieves play with their funds…The claims conference in my opinion is corrupt or at least inept. Soon the holocaust survivors will all be dead. How much more money will be stolen?
When the spies returned they showed everyone the incredible fruit they had found in the land. But they missed the point of the fruit. The surprisingly large fruit demonstrated the holiness of the land and its connection with Gd. If Gd’s holiness would give the “Promised Land” such wonders, certainly He would shield His people from any danger there—even the Nefilim. But there was no recognition of this in their apology.
Halevai, all of us would have the strength of character to admit wrongdoings and apologize for them. But an apology has meaning only when it is followed up by positive steps to rectify past misdeeds and to insure these mishaps don’t recur. Let’s open our eyes and see Gd’s fruit in this world. We have the Gd-given ability to confront our shortcomings and transform our lives. Let’s never settle for less in ourselves or in others. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis