“Long-Term Consequences”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, we are told of the twelve scouts who were sent by Moses to explore the land of Canaan in anticipation of the Children of Israel’s impending arrival in the land.

Moses sends 12 men who are charged with representing the interests of each of their respective tribes. The Bible (Numbers 13:3) informs us that these representatives are all distinguished leaders of the Children of Israel.

Unfortunately, ten of the twelve scouts are seemingly overwhelmed and intimidated by what they see in the land. They report back to the people that the inhabitants of the land of Canaan are powerful, the cities heavily fortified, the offspring of the giants and Amalek dwell in the area of the south, and the land is surrounded by many fearsome enemies.

Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, reject the negative conclusions of their fellow travelers. However, despite Caleb’s effort to counterbalance the negative report, the ten scouts, who are bent on vilifying the land, declare (Numbers 13:32), “Ha’aretz ah’sher ah’var’noo bah la’toor o’tah, eretz oh’chelet yosh’vehah hee, v’chol ha’ahm ah’sher ra’ee’noo b’toh’cha, ahn’shay mee’doht,” the land through which we have passed to spy out is a land that devours its inhabitants! And all the people that we saw there were giants!

The scouts’ frightening report results in national hysteria, leading the people to demand that Moses be replaced with a new leader who would return the Israelites to Egypt (Numbers 13:4). Scripture describes the people’s reaction in the following vivid terms (Numbers 14:1), “Va’tisa kol ha’ayda, v’yit’noo et kol’ahm, va’yiv’koo ha’ahm ba’layla ha’hoo,” the entire congregation raised its voice, and the people wept that night.

The intensity of the people’s rebellion is surpassed only by their arrogance. Despite having recently seen the great miracles of the splitting of the Red Sea and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, they do not hesitate to murmur arrogantly against Moses and Aaron, saying to them (Numbers 14:2-4), “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this 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?”

All of Joshua and Caleb’s subsequent attempts to quell the rebellion of the people, who are by then in an uncontrollable frenzy, prove futile. In fact, Joshua and Caleb were about to be pelted with stones when the glory of G-d appears.

The Al-mighty responds with fury, declaring His desire to destroy the people and to make a new nation from Moses. Faithful Moses, however, pleads with G-d to forgive them. G-d agrees to spare the people, but declares that all men age twenty or above will not enter the land of Israel. They will die in the wilderness during the next forty years.

Despite G-d’s decision to forgive the people, we see that their rebelliousness has far reaching consequences. The Talmud, in Taanit 29a, cites Rabbi Jochanan who concludes that the night referred to in Numbers 14:1 as the night when “the people cried,” was actually the 9th of Av. The Al-mighty declared to them, “You cried for no reason–I will give you good reason to cry throughout the generations.” It was on that fateful night, the 9th of Av, that G-d decreed that no man of that generation shall enter the Promised Land. It was on that same date that the first and second Temples were destroyed. Again, on the 9th of Av, Jerusalem was plowed under and Betar (135 CE) was captured. Many other tragic events occurred on that date, including the expulsion from Spain in 1492. The day of the 9th of Av was indeed set aside for all of Jewish history for sadness and punishment.

This, of course, begs the question: Is it possible for G-d to declare that the 9th day of Av will be a day that will live on in the history of the Jewish people as a day of infamy? Can it be that G-d visits the sins of the fathers upon the children and the children’s sins upon the fathers? Clearly not. The Bible (Deuteronomy 24:16) is very clear and definitive about how punishment is meted out: “Lo yoomtoo avot ahl banim…eesh b’chet’oh yoo’mah’too,” Parents shall not be punished for the sins of their children nor children for the sins of their parents. Each person is responsible for his/her own sin. Therefore, G-d declares that only those twenty years and older who participated in the rebellion, shall be punished. The children, however, will be spared and will enter the land of Israel.

However, despite the forgiveness, there appears to be long-term consequences. This long-term accountability is a theme that is frequently cited by the Torah commentaries (see Rashi, Exodus 20:5, based on Sanhedrin 27b). These commentators maintain that those who have the opportunity to repent, but choose instead to follow in the evil paths of their ancestors, will not only be punished for their own misdeeds; they will also suffer for the misdeeds of previous generations.

G-d does not initially punish people for the misdeeds of their parents, only for their own misdeeds when they are significant and abundant. However, if the new generation fails to learn from the faults of the previous generation, then the new generation will not be given the benefit of the doubt as is normal in Divine judgment. The Heavenly Tribunal will ask: Did you not learn your lesson from the fact that your grandparents and ancestors committed sinful acts and were punished?

Given the sad state of affairs of the Jewish people today, perhaps we should be asking ourselves, why the constant agony and persecution that our people experience? Could it be that we are being held accountable for the long-term implications of our actions and our ancestors’ actions? Are we a generation, like the generation of the Exodus, that has witnessed great miracles during our lifetimes (the establishment of the State of Israel, the Six Day War, etc.), but fail to sufficiently express our gratitude? Are we a generation that is always blaming G-d, and has not taken upon itself the responsibility to address even the most basic issues that face our community? Have we done enough to guarantee a viable Jewish education for every young Jew? Have we sufficiently supported the poor, the widows, the orphans, the agunot who are unable to obtain divorces from their recalcitrant husbands? Have we properly addressed the issue of child abuse in our homes and in our schools?

Perhaps the Al-mighty is looking down upon us and asking: Have you not learned from history? Why do you continue to cry for no reason? Why are you not doing what needs to be done?

Could it be that redemption has not yet come because we are not prepared to play a serious role in Jewish destiny? Could it be because we should know better and do not sufficiently consider the long-term consequences of our decisions and our actions?

If so, we must mend our ways, accept responsibility and do what needs to be done.

May you be blessed.