For the week ending 28 March 2015 / 8 Nisan 5775

The Story of Our Faith

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
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“I Will Show You Wonders”

G-d saved the Jewish People from their suffering in Egypt by turning the world upside down, showing all mankind His “mighty hand”, meaning His total reign over nature. During the first plague, for example, when a thirsty Egyptian saw a Jewish person drinking water and tried to take it from him without paying, the water turned to blood. During the seventh plague, icy hail turned to fire in mid-air. At the Sea of Reeds, too, G-d reversed the laws of nature, causing water to stand as a solid wall, enabling the Jewish People to pass through on dry land.

At the splitting of the sea all proclaimed, “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him.” The commentaries remark that even a simple maidservant perceived Divinity more clearly than Yechezkel, one of the greatest of all prophets. At Mount Sinai, the Jewish People reached even a higher level, where even the “angel of death” was powerless over them.

The Sin of the Spies

There is one problem with all the above. After a year in the desert surrounded by constant wonders, when the time finally arrives for the Jewish People to enter the Land of Israel, instead of showing their anticipation and joy, they ask Moshe to send spies to scout out the Land. And so, although warned of the grave danger inherent in questioning the Land that G-d promised to be good, twelve leaders are chosen for this sleuth task of checking out the Land.

The story gets worse when all but two of the spies return with an evil report. The people lose faith and cry the entire night, “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?” In response, G-d swears that none of the people who succumbed to the false report about the Land would merit entering it. Instead they would die wandering in the desert over a span of forty years.

How could a nation that witnessed G-d’s greatness and constant presence so easily lose their faith? To answer this question, we must examine the most shocking detail of this entire incident.

The Spies’ Report

“But, the people who dwell in the land are powerful; the cities are fortified and very great; and we also saw there the offspring of the giant. Amalek dwells in the south; the Hittite, the Jebusite, and the Emorite dwell in the mountain; and the Canaanite dwells by the sea and on the bank of the Jordan.” Caleb silenced the people towards Moshe and said, “We shall surely ascend and conquer (the Land and its inhabitants) for we can surely do it!” But the men that ascended with him said, “We cannot ascend to that people, for they are stronger than us (Hebrew: “mimenu”)!” (Bamidbar 13:28-31)

Our Sages explain that when the spies said “the people are stronger “mimenu — than us”, what they really meant was that “they are stronger “mimenu — than Him”, stronger than G-d, because the Hebrew word “mimenu” has both connotations.

On a deeper level: When we are told to substitute one meaning of a word for another, the intent is not to entirely replace the first word, but rather to add to it the meaning of the second word. In this case the spies were saying that the inhabitants of the Land were stronger than “us” and “G-d” together. In order to understand precisely what this means, further explanation is needed.

Two Types of Miracles

The Jewish People who left Egypt were used to seeing “open” miracles on a daily basis. Their food descended from Heaven every morning, and they were surrounded by constant clouds protecting them from the harsh desert conditions. But now, nearing what was to be the end of their desert journey, the Jewish People faced a new challenge, and they would be commanded to invade nations that were well-fortified. They felt as though they would have to go in and conquer the enemy themselves. Even with the promise of G-d’s help, they still needed to plan military strategies and battle armies both stronger and more numerous. This type of confrontation was unlike anything they had experienced before. Instead of standing back and watching G-d kill off their enemies with a wall of water or a Heavenly fire, this time they would personally need to wield the sword that would kill any person who stood in their way.

With the above, we can now have a glimpse of understanding how the Jewish People could have possibly lacked the necessary faith to overcome their fears of battle despite all the miracles they had witnessed. Until now, all they had seen was G-d breaking the laws of nature, not working within nature. They failed to realize that, even though they would be doing the actual fighting, G-d’s presence would be with them in battle to shield them from harm. They were perhaps not ready to believe that G-d’s infinite power would be “channeled” through them. By failing to realize that G-d can work within nature, utilizing even human decisions and actions to do His ultimate will, that generation proved unworthy to enter the Land. They were sentenced to forty years in the desert, not just as a punishment, but as a period of transition to strengthen their faith and gain a deeper understanding of G-d’s providence over the world. Their children, having been raised on this belief, would then have the necessary confidence and courage to battle the Land’s inhabitants with total faith in G-d’s ability to bring victory to the Jewish People.

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