“Had I Only Known!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, is a particularly depressing Torah portion. It is sad not only because of the evil report that the scouts bring back from Israel, but also because in parashat Shelach, the devastating fate of the Israelites is sealed–-those who were twenty years old and over when they came out of Egypt, would now never see the Promised Land.

However, although this generation would not enter into the land of Israel, they were assured that their children would enter the new land and would flourish there (Shelach 5763-2003). To those who were punished, this reassuring knowledge must have served, at least, as a partial consolation.

But what about the ten scouts who returned from Canaan with the evil report? These ten prominent leaders were hardly common people. Indeed, the Bible describes them as (Numbers 13:3), “Koo’lahm ah’nah’sheem rah’shay v’nay Yisrael hay’mah,” They were all distinguished men, heads of the Children of Israel. The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) calls them “Anshei Chayil,” men of valor, upright people, of great stature. These were seasoned leaders, who had proven their devotion and commitment to the Jewish people on previous occasions. And yet, they now failed both their G-d and their people, resulting in the death of an entire generation of 603,550 men, who were to pass away in the wilderness, denied entry into the Promised Land.

The collapse of so-called “great men,” seems to be a rather common contemporary occurrence, particularly in our world of instant communication. There are no longer any secrets, especially for celebrities and those of high profile. Just a few years ago, newspapers would “merely” feature exposés of important people, political, financial or religious leaders. But, because of the limited audience, in many instances, scandals remained local. Today, every sordid detail is discussed and analyzed online, in hundreds of blogs and email communications. Often, details are invented falsehoods, but nobody is held accountable since today’s writers no longer need to verify or provide sources for their accusations or even sign their names to their defamatory emails or blogs.

There is one particular verse in the early chapters of the book of Jeremiah that always makes me shudder. Speaking of the Jewish people who have forsaken G-d, the prophet Jeremiah declares, (Jeremiah 2:26), “K’voh’shet gah’nav kee yee’mah’tzay, kayn ho’vee’shoo bayt Yisrael,” Like the humiliation of a thief who is caught, so is the House of Israel ashamed, they, their kings, their princes, their priests and their prophets!

Most evil-doers do not think for a moment that their deeds will ever be exposed. They usually regard themselves as being far more clever than others. At the time of their evil actions, they give no thought to the impact that their deeds might have on posterity, their families, their spouses, their parents, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Unfortunately, we see this quite often today. It is not just Hitler’s family or the Rosenberg’s children and grandchildren who have changed their family names. The name “Madoff” has now become a virtual anathema, a synonym for an exceedingly evil embezzler and thief. His family has already paid a great price. It is hard to believe that only a few short years ago, investors clamored to be part of the elite “Madoff fraternity.”

Dominique Strauss-Kahn was on top of the world, serving as the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, and was regarded as a leading candidate for President of France. His name is now synonymous with out-of-control decadent behavior. What about his wife, children and grandchildren?

The Bible commentators long ago were sensitive to the long-range implications of people’s actions, especially public actions. They understood that one’s actions need not be nefarious or criminal to be regarded with disdain. The actions need only be seen as insufficient when they are looked back upon in posterity.

The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni (Ruth 2:604) states: Rabbi Isaac says: Scripture comes to teach that one who does a mitzvah should do so with a full heart. If Reuben only knew that the Bible would eternalize his actions at the pit by stating, “And Reuben heard, and saved him [Joseph] from their [the brothers] hands,” Reuben would have carried Joseph on his shoulders, all the way back to his father in Hebron. If Aaron only knew that Scripture would describe him as saying, “And he [your brother Moses] will see you, and his heart will rejoice,” Aaron would have greeted Moses’ return from Midian with drums and with dances. Had Boaz only known that Scripture would describe him as giving Ruth [who was working in his field] a few grains to eat, he would have fed her the greatest delicacies. But now these actions are recorded for all eternity, in the Bible no less, as having been inadequate. Even though each of the responses were intended to be actions of kindness, they could and should have been more generous and more magnanimous.

The ten scouts, who returned from Canaan with the evil report about the land of Israel, did not have good intentions. They were determined to keep the people of Israel from the land of Israel, because they themselves lacked faith that the people, or even G-d, could defeat the fearsome inhabitants, the Canaanite giants.

And now their ten names are inscribed in the Bible forever in ignominy. Each year, for thousands of years, the Jewish people have read their names and recalled their treachery. There is no escape; they are shamefully marked for all eternity.

If the ten scouts only knew that Jews throughout the ages, including such great leaders as King David, great scholars as Rabbi Akiva and Maimonides, and little children in Hebrew schools and Yeshivas throughout the world, would read their names and their fathers’ names and remember their perfidy, they might not have responded as they did.

Can we read this without shuddering? And, yet, when our turn comes to do the right thing, or the exceptional act, let alone a bad thing, will we remember and understand what the implications are for our lives, for our children’s lives and for our grandchildren’s lives?

Our own deeds and actions need not be recorded in the Bible, a history book or on the front page of a newspaper for us to be sensitive to the legacy that we leave. We need only be sensitive to ourselves and faithful to our G-d.

As we are reminded each year when we read the moving High Holiday prayer attributed to Rabbi Amnon of Mayence, “True it is that thou art judge and arbiter, discerner and witness, inscribing and recording all forgotten things. Thou [G-d] opens the Book of Records and it reads itself; every man’s signature is contained in it.”

How sad it will be for many of us, when we actually face ourselves and our mortality, and all we will be able to respond is, “Had I only known!” There is a way of avoiding having to say, “Had I only known,” and that is to recognize the implications of one’s actions today, acknowledging that we certainly do know better, and must do better!

May you be blessed.