“The Ma’ah’peelim: Forcing Their Way Into the Promised Land”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shelach-Lecha, we read about the “Ma’ah’peelim,” the ancient Israelites who tried to force their way into Canaan after G-d had decreed that they would not enter the Promised Land.

The story is well known. Moses sends twelve distinguished leaders to scout the land of Israel. Ten of them return with a negative report, saying that Canaan is a land that devours its inhabitants and is populated by giants and fierce and powerful people who live in fortified cities. They warn the Israelites that Amalek, the Hittites, the Jebusites and the Emorites dwell on the mountain, and that the Canaanites dwell by the sea. The ten scouts then declare (Numbers 13:31): “Lo noo’chahl la’ah’loat el ha’ahm, kee cha’zahk hoo mee’meh’noo,” We are not able to go up against those people [the Canaanites] for they are too strong for us.

The entire assembly of Israel weeps all night and cries out to Moses and Aaron (Number 14:2-3): “If only we had died in the land of Egypt or if only we had died in the wilderness! Why is G-d bringing us to this land to die by the sword? Our wives and young children will be taken captive! Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?”

Despite the best efforts of Joshua and Caleb (the two scouts who dissented from the negative report) to quell the rebellion and to assure the people that a good land is waiting for them, the people, in a frenzy, prepare to pelt Joshua and Caleb with stones. Only the appearance of the glory of G-d saves them.

After pleading with the Al-mighty, Moses dissuades G-d from destroying the people instantly, but G-d decides that, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, all the generation of men who had witnessed G-d’s miracles in Egypt and in the wilderness will not enter the Promised Land. The Al-mighty instructs Moses to turn away from the Promised Land and journey with the People toward the wilderness in the direction of the Sea of Reeds.

When the people learn of the Divine decree to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, they begin to mourn deeply. They rise up early in the morning, gather at the top of the mountain, and declare (Numbers 14:40): “We are ready, and we shall ascend to the place of which G-d has spoken, for we have sinned.” Moses warns the people not to transgress the word of G-d, for it will not succeed. He further admonishes them that G-d is not in their midst and that the Amalekites and the Canaanites are lying in wait to destroy them.

Despite the stern warning, scripture, in Numbers 14:44, relates: “Va’ya’ah’pee’loo la’ah’loat el rosh ha’har,” and they [the people] defiantly forced their way up the mountain, but the Ark of G-d’s covenant and Moses did not move from the midst of the camp. The Amalekite and the Canaanite who dwelt on the mountain descended and struck the People, pounding them until Hormah.

The commentators are perplexed by the severity of the punishment. Perhaps, they argue, the people (known historically as “Ma’ah’pee’lim“) who had defiantly forced their way up the mountain toward Canaan to enter the Promised Land against G-d’s will and had rallied behind the ten scouts and the evil reports, were now sincerely penitent, and regretted their previous rebelliousness and wished to enter Canaan with a full heart. After all, they state in Numbers 14:40, “Hee’neh’noo, v’ah’lee’noo el ha’mah’koam ah’sher ah’mar Hashem, kee cha’tah’noo,” We are here, and we shall ascend to the place of which G-d has spoken, for we have sinned! Is it not true that the doors of repentance are never closed? If the sinners realized their mistake, why were they not forgiven? Why were they attacked so viciously by their enemies and destroyed?

Searching for an answer, our rabbis carefully study the “fine print” of verse 40. The verse does not actually state that the Israelites acknowledged their sin. In fact, it says, “ah’sher ah’mar Hashem kee cha’tah’noo.” The people themselves are not really contrite. They merely state what G-d said about them, that they had sinned. If they themselves truly felt sinful why did they not clearly say so themselves rather than simply quote G-d’s description of them as sinners?

Furthermore, are the people now determined to enter the land because they are really motivated by love of the land of Israel, or is it simply because G-d had now said “no” to them?

The Maggid of Dubna offers a vivid parable that cuts to the essence of the issue. It is similar, says the Maggid, to a young man from a wealthy family who was offered a choice to marry either the daughter of another wealthy man or the daughter of a rabbi. The young man actually preferred the daughter of the rabbi, but insisted that he would marry her only if her father, the rabbi, gave him many precious gifts. Otherwise, he would marry the daughter of the wealthy man.

The rabbi rejected the conditions of the young man, stating that even if the prospective groom would reconsider and renounce his demands he would never allow his daughter to marry him. He explained his decision by saying that the young man had now shown his true colors, that he does not truly value Torah, since he is prepared to marry the daughter of a wealthy man who is an ignoramus and bereft of Torah.

Similarly, says the Maggid, when the nation of Israel heard the evil reports about the land of Israel, they declared (Numbers 14:3): “It is preferable for us to go back to Egypt.” This statement clearly indicates that the people of Israel did not truly value the land of Israel. Such a generation, says G-d, does not deserve to inherit the land, even though they are now regretful and are prepared to go to Canaan. There is no point in going to the land of Israel now, since there is no sincere commitment to the land. G-d therefore declares (Numbers 14:29): “Ba’mid’bar ha’zeh yip’loo fig’ray’chem,” in this wilderness your carcasses shall fall!

It is ironic that the appellation “Ma’ah’pee’lim” has taken on an entirely new, heroic meaning in contemporary times. Despite the Nazi’s unremitting efforts to murder all Jews, the British, who controlled mandatory Palestine, closed the borders of Palestine to all Jews, so as not to offend the Arab population. Refugees from Europe, desperate to escape their Nazi murderers, during, and even after, the war, risked their lives by boarding rickety and unsafe ships like the “Exodus,” in order to make their way illegally to the land of Israel, which was effectively blockaded by the British Navy. Hundreds of refugees lost their lives in unsuccessful attempts to reach the shores of the Promised Land. Thousands of others were intercepted. Some were sent back to die in Europe, while others were interned and arrested, both in Israel and in Cypress where they remained until they were welcomed by the independent State of Israel.

The heroic efforts of the new “Mah’ah’pee’lim” were significantly different from the actions of their ancient counterparts. While it is true that the doors of most countries were closed to the refugees fleeing for their lives, they could still have tried a less dangerous course of action to sneak through the borders of other countries where they could hide or live. Yet they chose to risk their lives, determined to reach the shores of Palestine. In their brazen efforts they showed their all-consuming love for the land of Israel. Israel was not their second or third choice, it was their first and only choice.

Since, by their actions, the Ma’ah’pee’lim demonstrated that they were with G-d–the Al-mighty was with them! He responded by opening the gates of Israel to all Jews who wanted to enter.

May you be blessed.