Then Egypt will hear…and they will say to the inhabitants of this Land, “You
have heard that Hashem is in the midst of the people…yet You killed this
people like a single man!” Then the nations that heard of Your fame will
say, “Because Hashem lacked the ability to bring this people to the Land…He
slaughtered them in the wilderness.” And now may the power of my Lord be
greater, as You have spoken. Hashem, slow to anger, abundant in kindness,
forgiver of iniquity and willful sin, Who cleanses – but does not cleanse
entirely the iniquity of parents remembered upon children to the third and
What could Moshe, as they say, do for an encore? In the aftermath of the
Golden Calf, his quick thinking and powers of persuasion had saved Bnei
Yisroel from feeling the brunt of Divine wrath. What could he add this time,
after the nation accepted the cynical and jaundiced report of the meraglim?
Hashem had all but spelled out Plan A. He would destroy the people who once
again had failed to get it. They had seen Divine Providence like no other
people had; G-d had been more than patient with them in their initial,
perhaps more understandable, failures. At some point, however, their
inability to show confidence in Him flowed not from cowardice or lack of
resolve, but from rejection. “How long will this people scorn Me?
Moshe understood that this plan did not compromise Hashem’s goal and purpose
in Creation. He was not rethinking His plan for the world, or for the role
of Bnei Yisroel. The Jewish people of his generation would cease to exist
in one terrible instant, but they would return in better form later. Hashem
would start his nation-building with Moshe. In a few centuries, there would
again be a restored number of people ready to accept the Torah and to enter
the Land. The promises to Avraham would be kept. Waiting a few more
centuries was not something that would particularly faze Him. The plan was
therefore justified and reasonable.
Moshe understood that his job was to argue otherwise, and to change the fate
of the people whom he led. Once again, he understood enough about Hashem and
His ways to succeed. This is what he said:
“Hashem, You have a plan for the future, and it will surely be fulfilled.
But you chose a people to be a vehicle for Your Word, and their election was
due in no small part to the impact they could have upon other peoples, other
nations and cultures with whom they would interact. They have already
attracted the attention of the two cultural superpowers of the day – the
Egyptians and the Phoenicians. Destroying the Jewish people now would
devastate the progress that has already been made in elevating mankind.
“The Egyptians experienced Your Might directly. Through the miracles in
Egypt and at the Yam Suf, they also have gotten a glimpse of Your ultimate
goal – the application of Your absolute strength in the service of goodness
and justice. Hosting the Jewish people has meant an assault against their
own gods which has left them reeling intellectually.
“The Phoenicians heard about You, and saw the liberation of Your children
from bondage and their march towards Israel as a great threat to their
security. Both of those nations now watch to see what Your next move will
be, and listen for Your next message through which they can also glean some
enlightenment and understanding.
“Destroy the Jewish people now, and these nations will speak to each other.
They will speak as well to others, to whomever will listen. You will snatch
defeat from the jaws of victory. All that has been gained will be lost.
Those who wish to deny You will have cause for celebration. Egypt, having
been brought to its knees in acknowledging You, will be the quickest to rid
itself of that recognition, and announce to the world that You do not have
the ability to deliver on Your promises.”
Moshe underscored that this would happen if “You killed the people as one
man,” if they all died in an instant. Here he launched Plan B:
“You have taught me something about Your goodness, about what a world
conscious of you ought to become. My generation merited to see a display of
Your power like no other generation. Yet, the greatest manifestation of that
power was not in the tearing asunder with impunity of all the laws of
Nature, as You did in Egypt. ‘Now, let Your power be great.’ A greater show
of Your power would be to make a concrete display of Your midos. Through
them, You can teach the world about a greater ability, one that takes
weakness and turns it into strength, opposition into willing agreement. None
but You can detect the good that exists within the evil. You know – only
You know – that that good exists within this sinning people. You do not have
to quash it, but can turn it into the beginning of an Am Hashem. You can see
the spark of cooperation that is not extinguished within the rebellion.
Moreover, only You know how to nurture that spark, and turn it in time into
“Destroying the people in an instant would indeed inspire awe of Your
strength. More overwhelming, however, would be to not destroy them, and
succeed in Your plan nonetheless. Keep that rebellious people alive, and
move on with history despite them – no, with them and through them! Turn
them into what appears at the moment to be unlikely ambassadors of Your
Word. (It is no accident that the yud in yigdal/become great – the letter
that grammatically speaks of the future tense – is written large in the
sefer Torah. Your greatness in the future according to my plan, says Moshe,
will be much greater that what we saw at the time of yetzias Mitzrayim.)
“In the process, according to my Plan B, the world will learn much about
you. The first and most important lesson is that You are an erech apayim,
that You have patience far beyond what a human can possess. You have ample
justification to destroy the people, yet You will not, instead waiting
patiently for the sinners to reflect upon their folly, to change themselves,
to rise out of their spiritual morass and regain the glory they once
possessed. They will see you as a rav chesed, of being so unstinting in Your
love that You keep showering it after it has been spurned again and again.
They will realize how you lift away the stain of transgression, whether
caused by passion or even rebellion. They will see You dealing with the
progeny of the sinner when You need to deal with his sin. On the one hand,
nakeh lo yenakeh – You will not completely disregard the smallest sin. You
know the effect that sin has upon us, and cannot allow us to continue on,
oblivious to the effects of a blemish on our pure souls. So you wipe away
sin, without overlooking it entirely. You find a way to deal with it
correctively. On the other hand, You address our sins as no human can, You
take into account the return of some unborn offspring who might return to
the proper path some three or four generations in the future!” That becomes
reason enough to delay or mitigate a sentence.
We are accustomed, most of us, to reading Moshe’s modest little speech as a
prayer invoking Hashem’s midos. The reading above sees it differently, as a
proposal of an alternate plan of action for Hashem, which will lead to the
illumination of His midos to mortal humans.
Upon reflection, proposing a different way to satisfy the demands of Divine
judgment is itself a one of the most common forms of prayer: asking Hashem
to substitute a strategy coming from Midas haRachamim, in place of one
coming from Midas haDin.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Bamidbar 14:13-19
2. Bamidbar 14:11
3. Bamidbar 14:15
4. Bamidbar 14:17