“Can Human Beings Achieve Immortality?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

One of the most heartrending and challenging juxtapositions in the Bible appears in this week’s parasha, Shelach Lecha. The twelve scouts have returned from their visit to Canaan, and ten have come back with an evil report that the land is (Numbers 13:32), “Eretz o’chelet yosh’veh’hah,” a land that devours its inhabitants. Despite Caleb and Joshua’s best efforts to restore a sense of balance to the report, panic spreads among the people. The people, who are in dread fear of the new “Promised Land,” are convinced that they will be consumed by the giants who reside in Canaan. They cry through the night, blaming Moshe and Aaron for their troubles, and express the wish that they had never left Egypt! They brazenly declare their preparedness to find a new leader and begin the return to Egypt that very moment.

G-d’s wrath is kindled. He tells Moshe that He wishes to destroy the entire nation and rebuild a new nation through Moshe. Moshe pleads on behalf of the people for mercy. G-d yields, but vows that none of the men alive at the time of this rebellion will live to see the land of Canaan–they are all destined to die in the wilderness. For each of the 40 days that the scouts spent in Canaan, the Israelites are doomed to wander a year in the wilderness. To top off those grievous tidings, the 10 leaders who delivered the evil report die in a plague before G-d.

Imagine, if you will, the hysteria of the people following the decree that they will not enter Canaan. Some are so distraught that they attempt to immediately force their way up to Israel and are beaten back in a savage attack by the Amalekites and the Canaanites. This final tragedy adds only more pain to the people.

The story of the scouts, and the resulting ban against entering Canaan, now concludes, and a new chapter, chapter 15, begins that appears to be unrelated to the previous story. The Torah states in Numbers 15:2: “Ki tavoh’oo el eretz mosh’voh’tay’chem asher ani noh’tain lah’chem.” The new chapter predicts that there will come a new day, when the people of Israel will enter into the land of their dwelling that G-d gives them. The prediction is followed by a host of laws, replete with technical details regarding the amounts of meal offerings and wine libations that must accompany the sacrifices that will be brought by the nation, when they enter the land of Canaan.

How cruel! G-d has just finished telling the people that they will not enter the promised land. Then, as if pouring salt on their wounds, the Almighty cites a series of laws that will apply to the sacrifices that will be brought 39 years later in the land of Israel! Isn’t it simply enough to punish the people? Must G-d hurt the people even more by taunting them that: “You will never enter the land, and you will never be privileged to bring these sacrifices together with the meal offerings and wine libations!”? Is this a manifestation of G-d’s cruel cosmic sense of humor? To rub in the pain? Isn’t the punishment–the ban from Canaan–sufficient?

The intriguing juxtaposition of these two chapters reveals to us one of the fundamental principals of Jewish philosophy. While the Almighty decrees that the generation that sinned with the scouts will never be allowed to enter the land of Israel, G-d consoles them by promising them that, while they will not make it, their children and their grandchildren surely will, and that these descendants will bring sacrifice libations and celebrate fully in the Promised Land.

As we all know, humans are mortal. No one lives forever. Furthermore, while we may hope, no human can ever actually accomplish and fulfill all their dreams and desires during their lifetime. But as Ernest Becker argues in his brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning volume, The Denial of Death, we humans can indeed achieve immortality by passing on our values to our children and having them perpetuate our dreams and our desires.

“While I am punishing you by not allowing you to enter into the land of Canaan,” says G-d to the stiff-necked generation, “You will not die! In fact, you will live on–through your children who will be loyal to the faith system of Israel and will joyously celebrate in the land of Israel.”

Is this not true for us all? We all face the inevitable reality that our physical life is finite, and that while we “have miles to go” we will all ultimately “sleep,” some sooner, some later. But if we truly wish to achieve immortality, it is most crucial that we bear in mind that our life’s priority must be to properly and effectively transmit our values to the next generation, so that our ultimate dreams will be fulfilled and maintained in the future. This is one of the meanings of the Hebrew expression “To be bound up in the bond of eternal life.” It is one of the greatest blessings G-d has given us. Let us seize it, embrace it, and incorporate it into the essence of our being.

May you be blessed.