“The Torah’s Definition of ‘Power’”
(Revised and Updated from Parashat Shelach 5761-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald.

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, recounts the story of the twelve spies or, more accurately, the twelve “scouts,” who were sent by Moses to survey the land of Israel. Upon returning, ten of the scouts spoke badly of Israel, but two of the scouts–Joshua the son of Nun and Kaleb the son of Jefuna, returned with a positive report.

No matter how Joshua and Kaleb tried to persuade the People of Israel that the land of Israel was a good land, the people, who were bent on evil, accepted only the negative accounts of the other ten scouts–and were intimidated by their report that Canaan is a land that “devours its inhabitants!”

In response to the people, G-d says to Moses, Numbers 14:11-12: עַד אָנָה יְנַאֲצֻנִי הָעָם הַזֶּה, וְעַד אָנָה לֹא יַאֲמִינוּ בִי, בְּכֹל הָאֹתוֹת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי בְּקִרְבּוֹ, “How long will this people provoke me? How long will they [the people] not have faith in me, despite all the miracles that I have performed in their midst?” אַכֶּנּוּ בַדֶּבֶר וְאוֹרִשֶׁנּוּ, וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ, “I will smite them with the plague, and annihilate them, and I shall make you [Moses] into a greater and more powerful nation than they.”

Speaking to G-d like a clever “public relations” expert who is concerned with G-d’s “Divine image,” Moses responds to G-d saying that when the Egyptians and the other nations will hear what You [G-d] have done, they will say that You were just incapable of fulfilling Your promise of bringing Your people to the land of Canaan. The nations will say, argues Moses, Numbers 14:16: מִבִּלְתִּי יְכֹלֶת השׁם, לְהָבִיא אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לָהֶם, G-d simply lacked the ability to bring the people to the land that He had sworn to give them, וַיִּשְׁחָטֵם בַּמִּדְבָּר, so he slaughtered them in the wilderness.

In Numbers 14:17, Moses pleads with G-d, saying: וְעַתָּה, יִגְדַּל נָא כֹּחַ השׁם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ לֵאמֹר, “And now, may the strength of G-d be magnified, as You Yourself have spoken saying,” Numbers 14:18: השׁם, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד, נֹשֵׂא עָוֺן וָפָשַׁע, וְנַקֵּה, לֹא יְנַקֶּה, פֹּקֵד עֲוֺן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים, עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים, “G-d, slow to anger, abundant in kindness, forgiving iniquity and willful sin, who cleanses, but does not cleanse completely, recalling the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and fourth generation.”

In Numbers 14:19, Moses continues to plead, סְלַח נָא, לַעֲוֺן הָעָם הַזֶּה כְּגֹדֶל חַסְדֶּךָ, וְכַאֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה מִמִּצְרַיִם וְעַד הֵנָּה, “Forgive now the inequity of these people according to the greatness of Your kindness and as You have forgiven this people from Egypt until now.” To all this G-d finally responds, Numbers 14:20: וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם, סָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ, and G-d said, “I forgive, because of your words!”

Despite the fact that Jewish people are nominally forgiven, all the men who were 20 years old and upward, with the exception of Joshua and Kaleb, are condemned to ultimately perish in the wilderness over the next 40 years.

A question remains. Why in Numbers 14:17 does Moses say, וְעַתָּה, יִגְדַּל נָא כֹּחַ השׁם, “and now, may the strength of G-d be magnified?” Moses had previously warned that the nations will say, מִבְּלִי יְכֹלֶת השׁם, that G-d ran out of steam. G-d, and the concept of Divine omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence will undoubtedly be seen as a fraud by the nations. Perhaps, Moses is arguing that if G-d slaughters the people at this time, then the entire value of the Exodus from Egypt will be forfeited.

I would like to suggest, that, in effect, what G-d and Moses are really conveying in this dialogue, is a new definition of “power.”

Generally, “power” is the means used to overwhelm others by brute force, to destroy, to uproot and to shatter. But, at this moment, G-d and Moses and Jewish tradition ascribe a new meaning to the concept of power.

This new meaning is alluded to in our Talmudic tradition. The Mishne in Pirkei Avot 4:1 asks, ?אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר, Who is mighty? הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ, those who able to conquer their tempers and control their anger. In Avot d’Rabeinu Natan, 23, Jewish tradition goes even further, asking, ?אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר שֶׁבַּגִבּוֹרִים, Who is the most mighty of the mighty? מִי שֶׁעוֹשֶׂה שׂוֹנְאוֹ אוֹהֲבוֹ, those who are able to convert their enemies into friends.

Moses argues that “true power” is the ability to exercise restraint and not destroy. To the contrary, power is the ability to forgive, to convert and to transfer from one strongly held attitude to another. “G-d,” says Moses, “You are אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם–long to anger. You now have the opportunity to demonstrate to the nations of the world how incredibly powerful You are by giving the Jews a second chance.”

And, in effect, that is what really happened. After all, the ultimate paradigm of G-d’s power is the resilience of the Jewish people, and the ultimate vehicle that has successfully conveyed the idea of G-d’s power is the longevity of the Jewish people. The fact that we Jews still exist, despite all odds, is living testimony of G-d’s ultimate power—His power to forgive.

It is easy to beat someone up, or to beat someone down. It is far more difficult to forgive a person, and to turn that person into a friend.

May you be blessed.