“Was the Sin of the Scouts Greater than the Sin of the Golden Calf?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In last week’s parasha, parashat B’ha’alot’cha, we learned of the murmurers who complained about the arduous trip from Egypt to Canaan. We were also told of the complainers who were dissatisfied with the manna and lusted for meat. It seems that wherever we turn, the ungrateful people of Israel are ready to rebel.

But perhaps the greatest of all the perfidious acts of the people of Israel is the sin of the Golden Calf. According to tradition it took place on the 17th day of Tammuz, approximately three months to the day of the exodus from Egypt. The Torah was revealed at Sinai on the 6th of Sivan, where G-d Himself spoke to the people. Moses ascended the mountain for 40 days, and with their leader away, the people became impatient. When, according to the people’s calculation, Moses was late in returning, they were convinced that he had died and felt compelled to find a substitute leader–-a Golden Calf.

Could there be a greater affront to the Al-mighty than for the people to joyously worship the Golden Calf, especially in light of the many miracles that G-d had performed for them when He took them out of Egypt? How could a people be so ungrateful and so callous? Nevertheless, when Moses pleads for the people with all his might, G-d forgives them!

And yet, in this week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, when Moses sends out 12 leaders to scout out the land of Canaan, and 10 scouts return with an evil report, G-d does not forgive the people.

In Numbers 14:11, in response to the treachery of the scouts, G-d says to Moses: “Ahd ah’nah y’nah’ah’tzoo’nee hah’ahm hah’zeh, v’ahd ah’nah lo yah’ah’mee’noo vee, b’chol hah’oh’toht ah’sher ah’see’tee b’kir’boh?” How long will this people provoke Me, and how long will they not have faith in Me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst?

G-d wishes to smite the people and annihilate them and make a greater, more powerful nation of Moses. Moses begs the Al-mighty, once again, to forgive the people, but the best he can do this time is forestall an immediate wholesale slaughter of the sinful people.

In Numbers 14:20, G-d declares to Moses: I have forgiven them as you have requested. But, He says, Numbers 14:21: “V’ooh’lahm, chai Ah’nee, v’yee’mah’lay ch’vohd Hashem et kol ha’ah’retz,” as I live, and the glory of G-d shall fill the entire world, that all the men who have seen My glory and My signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and that have tested Me these ten times, and have not heeded My voice, they will not see the land. Except for Joshua and Caleb, all men who are of adult age will die in the wilderness as they wander for 40 years, waiting to enter the land of Canaan.

How is it possible that G-d forgives the people for the sin of the Golden Calf, but not when the scouts return with an evil report about the land of Canaan?

It could be that the report of the scouts is the “straw that breaks the camel’s back.” After all, G-d wants to destroy the people after the sin of the Golden Calf, but Moses successfully petitions for mercy on their behalf. Now that they sin again, G-d cannot be persuaded.

The great Biblical writer and political theoretician, Dr. Yisrael Eldad (1910-1996, noted Israeli freedom fighter and Revisionist Zionist philosopher), in his penetrating volume on the weekly Torah portions, Hegyonot Mikrah, suggests that the reason for the different outcomes is as follows: When Abraham was told to leave his land and the land of his fathers, and to go to a land that G-d will show him–-G-d did not even identify the land to which Abraham would be sent. Yet, Abraham went as a man of pure faith, as an idealist. He went because he believed that in this new land, wherever it was to be, a new reality awaited him, one that represented great hope and opportunity.

When the people of Israel left Egypt and were directed to go to the land of Canaan, they, in contrast to Abraham, did not go as idealists, but as former slaves, as refugees. They went as people who had been expelled from the only land they had ever known, which had been their home for hundreds of years. This was not a trip of fervent pioneers looking for a new land, it was an escape.

For the generation of slaves that had been expelled from Egypt, to stand at Mount Sinai and hear G-d speak was indeed a revelation. It made a deep impact on them and they were grateful to their G-d, their Redeemer. But when Moses disappeared for 40 days, there was no one to lead. Without Moses, there was no G-d. Worshiping the Golden Calf was simply a misapplication of their longing for G-d. This is confirmed by the people’s shouts when they beheld the Golden Calf, Exodus 32:4: “This is your G-d, oh Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” This clearly indicates that the people were looking for a spiritual leader, for the One who had redeemed them from Egypt, and they acknowledge with gratitude what He had done for them.

On the other hand, the scouts brazenly announce, Numbers 14:4: “Nit’nah rosh, v’nah’shoo’vah Mitzraima,” Let us appoint for ourselves a new leader and go back to Egypt!

In the very first statement of the Ten Commandments, G-d identifies Himself as the G-d who took the people out of Egypt. Yet, the scouts declare that they wish to return to Egypt, to slavery. They deny the very essence of Sinai. The sin of “let us go back to Egypt” is greater than the sin of the Golden Calf. Consequently, their punishment is much harsher.

The Al-mighty was able to forgive the people for the impetuous sin of building a Golden Calf. After all, they remained loyal to G-d, they just could not get along without a leader. But, G-d could not forgive the people who had themselves been redeemed, and then announced that they wished to return to Egypt, clearly denying that the L-rd was the one who took them out of bondage.

With the people no longer physically or spiritually loyal, they were destined to wander for 40 years, until a new generation, a faithful generation, would arise, who would be allowed to enter the Promised Land, to hopefully become a kingdom of priests and a holy people.

A theological error may be forgiven, but a lack of faith and loyalty cannot. How tragic!

May you be blessed.