“Achieving Immortality”
(updated and revised from Shelach 5763-2003)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

One of the most heartrending and challenging juxtapositions in the Bible appears in this week’s parasha, parashat Shelach Lecha.

The twelve scouts have returned from their visit to Canaan, and ten have come back with an evil report that the land is, (Numbers 13:32), אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ, a land that devours its inhabitants. Despite Caleb and Joshua’s best efforts to restore a sense of balance to the report, panic spreads among the people. The people, who are in dread fear of the new “Promised Land,” are convinced that they will be consumed by the giants who reside in Canaan. They cry through the night, blaming Moses and Aaron for their troubles, and even express the wish that they had never left Egypt! They brazenly declare their preparedness to find a new leader and begin the return to Egypt that very moment.

G-d’s wrath is kindled. He tells Moses that He wishes to destroy the entire nation and rebuild a new nation through Moses. Moses pleads on behalf of the people for mercy. G-d yields, but vows that none of the men alive at the time of this rebellion will live to see the land of Canaan–they are all destined to die in the wilderness. For each of the 40 days that the scouts spent in Canaan, the Israelites are doomed to wander a year in the wilderness. To top off those grievous tidings, the 10 scouts who delivered the evil report die in a plague before G-d.

Imagine the hysteria of the people following the decree that they will not enter Canaan. Some are so distraught that they attempt to immediately force their way up to Israel and are beaten back in a savage attack by the Amalekites and the Canaanites. This final tragedy adds only more pain to the survivors.

The story of the scouts, and the resulting ban against entering Canaan, now concludes, and a new chapter, Numbers 15, begins that appears to be totally unrelated to the previous narrative.

The Torah states Numbers 15:2: כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל אֶרֶץ מוֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם.This new chapter predicts that there will come a new day, when the People of Israel will enter into the land of their dwelling (Canaan, of course) that G-d gives them. The prediction is followed by a host of elaborate laws, replete with technical details regarding the amounts of meal offerings and wine libations that must accompany the sacrifices that will be brought by the nation, when they enter the land of Canaan.

How cruel! G-d has just finished informing the people that they will not enter the promised land. Then, as if pouring salt on their wounds, the Al-mighty cites a series of laws that will apply to the sacrifices that will be brought 39 years later in the land of Israel! Must G-d hurt the people even more by taunting them! Why would a so-called “compassionate G-d,” tell the people that they will never enter the land, and will never be privileged to bring these sacrifices together with the meal offerings and wine libations!? Is this a manifestation of G-d’s cruel cosmic sense of humor, to rub in the pain? Isn’t the punishment–the ban from ever entering Canaan, sufficient?

The intriguing juxtaposition of these two chapters reveals one of the fundamental principles of Jewish philosophy. While the Al-mighty decrees that the generation who sinned with the scouts will never be allowed to enter the land of Israel, G-d consoles them by promising them that while they will not make it, their children and their grandchildren surely will, and promises that their descendants will bring sacrifice libations and celebrate fully in the Promised Land.

As we all know, all humans are mortal. No one lives forever. Furthermore, while we may hope, no human can ever actually accomplish and fulfill all their life’s dreams and desires during their lifetimes. But as Ernest Becker argues in his brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning volume, The Denial of Death, we humans can indeed achieve immortality by passing on our values to our children and having them perpetuate our dreams and our desires.

“While I am punishing you by not allowing you to enter into the land of Canaan,” says G-d to the stiff-necked generation, “You will not die! In fact, you will live on–through your children who will be loyal to the faith system of Israel and will joyously celebrate in the land of Israel.”

Is this not true for all of us, as well? We all face the inevitable reality that our physical life is finite, and that while we “have miles to go,” we will all ultimately “sleep,” some sooner, some later. But, if we truly wish to achieve immortality, it is most crucial that we bear in mind that our life’s priority must be to properly and effectively transmit our values to the next generation, so that our ultimate dreams will be fulfilled and maintained by them, in the future.

This is one of the meanings of the Hebrew prayer that is pronounced at the time of death, וְיִצְרוֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָתוֹ, that the deceased’s soul “be bound up in the bond of eternal life.” It is certainly one of the greatest blessings that G-d has graciously bestowed upon us.

Let us seize this opportunity to achieve immortality, embrace it, and incorporate it into the essence of our being.

May you be blessed.