“The Torah’s Definition of ‘Power'”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, recounts the story of the twelve spies or, more accurately, twelve “scouts” that were sent off by Moshe to survey the land of Israel. Upon returning, ten of the scouts spoke of the evils of Israel, but two of the scouts–Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Yefuna–returned with a positive report.

No matter how Joshua and Caleb tried to persuade the People of Israel that the land of Israel is a good land, the people, who were bent on evil, accept only the negative accounts of the ten scouts–and are intimidated by their report that Canaan is a land that “devours its inhabitants!” In response to the people, G-d says to Moshe (Numbers 14:11-12), “Ad ah’nah y’nah’ah’tzuni ha’am ha’zeh, v’ad an’ah lo ya’ahmee’nu bee, b’chol ha’ot’ot asher ah’see’tee b’kir’bo?” How long will this people provoke me? How long will they not have faith in me, despite all the miracles that I’ve performed in their midst? “A’keh’nu va’deh’ver v’o’ree’sheh’nu v’eh’eh’seh ot’chah l’goy ga’dol v’ah’tzum me’meh’nu.” I will smite them with the plague, and annihilate them, and I shall make you (Moshe) into a greater and more powerful nation than they.

Speaking like a concerned Public Relations representative, Moshe responds to G-d saying that when the Egyptians and the other nations will hear what You (G-d) have done, they will say that You were just incapable of fulfilling Your promise of bringing Your people to the land of Canaan. The nations will say, argues Moshe, Numbers 14:16: “Mee’bil’tee y’cholet Hashem, l’hah’vee et ha’am ha’zeh el hah’aretz, asher nish’bah la’hem,” G-d simply lacked the ability to bring the people to the land that He had sworn to give them, “Va’yish’cha’tem ba’mid’bar,” so he slaughtered them in the wilderness.

In verse 17, Moshe pleads with G-d, saying: “V’ah’tah, yig’dal nah ko’ach Hashem,” and now, may the strength of G-d be magnified, “Kah’asher dee’bar’tah lay’mor,” as You yourself have spoken saying (Verse 18): “Hashem eh’rech ah’payim v’rav chesed, no’say a’von vah’feh’shah v’nah’kay lo y’na’kay, po’ked a’von a’vot al bah’nim, v’al sh’lay’shim, v’al r’bay’im.” G-d, slow to anger, abundant in kindness, forgiving iniquity and willful sin, who cleanses, but does not cleanse completely, recalling the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and fourth generation. Moshe pleads, (verse 19): “S’lach nah la’avon ha’am ha’zeh k’goh’del chas’deh’cha, v’cha’ah’sher nah’sa’ta la’am ha’zeh mee’mitz’ra’yim v’yad hay’nah”. Forgive now the iniquity of these people according to the greatness of Your kindness and as You have forgiven this people from Egypt until now. To all this G-d finally responds (verse 20): “Va’yoh’mer Hashem, sah’lach’tee kid’vah’reh’cha,” and G-d said, I forgive, because of your words!

While the Jewish people are nominally forgiven, all men 20 years old and upward, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, are condemned to ultimately perish in the wilderness over the next 40 years.

A question remains. Why in verse 17 does Moshe say, “V’at’ah yig’dal nah ko’ach Hashem,” and now may the strength of G-d be magnified? Moshe had previously warned that the nations will say, “Mib’lee yeh’cholet Hashem,” that G-d ran out of steam. G-d, and the concept of Divine omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence will undoubtedly be seen as a fraud by the nations. Perhaps, Moshe is arguing that if G-d slaughters the people at this time, then the entire value of the Exodus from Egypt will be forfeited.

But, in effect, what G-d and Moshe are really conveying in this dialogue is a new definition of “power.” Generally, “power” means the ability to overwhelm another by force. Normally, power is used to destroy, to uproot and to shatter. But at this moment G-d and Moshe and Jewish tradition ascribe a new meaning to the concept power.

This new meaning is alluded to in our Talmudic tradition. The Mishnah in Avot 4:1 asks, “Ay’zeh’hu gee’bor?” Who is mighty? “Ha’koh’vaish et yitz’roh,” one who is able to conquer one’s temper and control one’s anger. In Avot d’Rabeinu Natan 23, Jewish tradition goes even further, asking “Ay’zeh’hu gee’bor sheh’bah’gee’boh’rim?” Who is the most mighty of the mighty? “Mi sheh’o’seh sohn’oh oh’ha’voh,” those who are able to convert their enemies into friends.

Moshe argues that “power” means not to destroy. To the contrary, power is the ability to forgive, to convert and to transfer from one strongly held attitude to another. “G-d,” says Moshe, “You are Erech Ah’payim–long to anger. You now have the opportunity to demonstrate to the nations of the world how incredibly powerful You are by giving the Jews a second chance.”

And, in effect, that is what really happened. After all, the ultimate communicators of G-d’s power are the Jewish people, and the ultimate vehicle that has successfully conveyed the idea of G-d’s power is the longevity of the Jewish people. The fact that we Jews still exist, despite all odds, is living testimony to G-d’s power.

It is easy to beat someone up, or to beat someone down. It is far more difficult to forgive a person, and to turn that person into a friend.

May you be blessed.