By Rabbi Aron Tendler
But I Said I'm Sorry!
T he date was Tisha B'av 2449, almost 3, 311 years ago. The Bnai Yisroel
were poised to enter the land of Israel. Their entrance would have been from
the Negev, and a single mountain, the Mountain of the Amorite, stood as the
final barrier between them and the southern border of Israel. The Spies
returned from their mission and their negative report succeeded in eroding
the nation's fragile trust in G-d.
Following the incident of the Miraglim - Spies, Moshe, invoked the special
formula of G-d's Thirteen Attributes of Mercy and beseeched G-d to forgive
the Bnai Yisroel and not destroy them. G-d relented from His original intent
of destroying the nation, but decreed that the Jews would have to remain in
the desert another 38 years, during which all the men twenty years and older
Following G-d's decree that the Jews would have to stay in the desert a total
of forty years, the Torah records (14:40) that a number of Jews attempted to
enter Israel without G-d's permission. Moshe begged them not to do so;
however, they ignored Moshe, and hoping to avoid a clash with the Amorites
who occupied that immediate area, they attempted to traverse the Mountain of
the Amorties (elev. 3,300') and enter Eretz Yisroel. In the end, they walked
into an ambush set by the Canaanites and were defeated.
Considering the fact that Moshe had accomplished a reduction in G-d's
original punishment, and that G-d was clearly still angry at the Bnai Yisroel
for their loss of faith in Him, why did these men ignore Moshe's advice and
G-d's decree and attempt to enter Eretz Yisroel without His permission?
The Eleventh Principle of Faith, (the Ani Maamins) states as follows: "I
believe with complete faith that the Creator, Blessed is His Name, rewards
with good those who observe His commandments, and punishes those who violate
His commandments." This means that for every one of our actions there is a
consequence. If we follow the dictates of G-d's law, we will be rewarded.
If we go against G-d's commandments, we will be punished.
How do we reconcile Teshuva - repentance with the inevitability of
punishment? Is the intent of the Eleventh Principle that punishment is only
when there is no repentance, but if there is Teshuva then punishment is
suspended? Or, is the goal of Teshuva different and more expansive than
merely avoiding punishment, and in fact, may have no effect at all on the
inevitability of punishment?
Considering that G-d Himself is the source of the greatest good and benefit,
it makes sense that punishment and reward should be a matter of closeness or
distance to that source of goodness. Therefore, punishment should be defined
as any consequence that either distances us from G-d, or creates a set of
circumstances that cloud our awareness of G-d's manifest presence. Reward
should be defined as any consequence that brings us closer to G-d, or creates
a set of circumstances that increase our awareness of G-d's manifest presence.
Most people labor under the hopeful misconception that saying, "I'm sorry, "
is sufficient to avoid punishment. This was never the intent of Teshuva.
The goal of repentance, as the term Teshuva - to return implies, is to
reestablish in the aftermath of having sinned (which creates a distance
between us and G-d) a closeness with G-d or with the person who we had harmed
or offended. Therefore, it is important for us to differentiate between
reward and punishment and the sometimes inevitability of consequence.
Reward and punishment are byproducts of our relationship with G-d.
Consequence is the direct reaction that every action sets in motion. For
example; if a person is negligent and breaks his neighbor's window, what
should be do? Clearly, the individual must pay for the damaged window and
should also say he's sorry for the damage. The payment is for the damages to
his neighbor's property, and the apology is to compensate for any
inconvenience or assumed or real insult. It doesn't make sense that the
apology alone should suffice. Regardless of the social implications, proper
restitution must be made for the damaged property. It also doesn't make
sense to assume that monetary remuneration is sufficient to rebuild the
neighborly relationship. Apologies, reassurances, and appropriate measures
to avoid the same thing reoccurring must also be extended.
In the case of the Miraglim, the balance between Teshuva and inevitable
consequence was more complex. On the one hand, Teshuva and G-d's forgiveness
was essential for reestablishing the nation's relationship with G-d. On the
other hand, the damage to the soul of the nation had to be repaired. A
simple, "We're sorry, " wouldn't suffice. The closeness with G-d was
reestablished the moment that G-d said to Moshe (14:20) I will grant
forgiveness as you have requested. However, there was still significant
damage that needed repair. (14:21) and as G-d's glory fills all the world,
I will punish all the people who saw My glory and the miracles that I did in
Egypt and the desert, but still tried to test me these ten times by not
obeying Me. G-d's decree that all the men over twenty years of age would die
in the desert was the inevitable consequence to the Sin of the Spies. No
amount of saying "We're sorry" could suffice - restitution had to be made.
The Sin of the Miraglim indicated how ill prepared the Jews were to occupy
Eretz Yisroel. The goal of the "consequence" was to correct that deficiency
and prepare the nation to occupy the land. Therefore, the nation's
punishment was not immediate. Only the actual spies were punished right
away. The goal of the 38 years of being in the desert was to rebuild the
nation's trust in G-d so that they would never again question G-d's ability
to care for them.
The generation that would occupy the land would be responsible to interface
with Eretz Yisroel and spread the awareness of G-d to the rest of the world.
The Sin of the Spies caused a limiting of G-d's "glory" - meaning, the
awareness of G-d's absolute control over every facet of the universe. The
report of the Spies caused the Jews to question whether G-d could fulfill His
promise. Would He be able to best the 31 kings of Canaan? Therefore, that
generation could not be the ones to occupy the land and build a kingdom on an
unshakable foundation of faith and trust in G-d. However, during the 40
years in the desert they would model for the new generation, that would
occupy Eretz Yisroel, how they must behave. In the end, every individual
directly impacted by the Sin of the Miraglim became more aware of G-d's
manifest presence and control. In the end, the punishment and the
consequence resulted in greater "good."
Accepting the difference between punishment and inevitable
consequence isn't easy. Most of us would like to make our past failings
simply disappear, and hope that our saying, "I'm sorry" is sufficient. In
truth, as we all know, the more intimate the relationship the more complex
the Teshuva. How often do we want to make it all go away with a heartfelt
apology only to be confronted by our "victims" reluctance or inability to let
go of the past? How often does the attempted apology turn into righteous
indignation and further offense, hurt, and distance? Unfortunately, it is
our unwarranted expectation that the apology should suffice which gets us
into trouble. We need to accept that some hurts don't simply disappear with
an apology. We must accept that certain behaviors carry inevitable
consequences that are beyond our immediate control. This was the mistake of
the group of Jews who attempted to enter Eretz Yisroel after the sin of the
Miraglim. They heard the terrible decree of G-d and wanted to make it all go
away with their heartfelt Teshuva and apology. They wanted to believe that
if they would show G-d how much they wanted to occupy Eretz Yisroel, G-d
would relent and forgive the past. However, they refused to take into
account that the Sin of the Spies caused inevitable consequence that wouldn't
go away just because they had said they were sorry.
It is incumbent upon us all to accept the full spectrum of consequences that
our actions set in motion. Some of them are satisfied with a simple apology;
others demand greater effort and time. However, one thing is absolutely
certain. Every action results in a consequence of reward or punishment. It
is our choice to work within the framework of G-d's justice and utilize very
opportunity, whether seemingly a reward or a punishment, to be closer to G-d
and those who we are supposed to love.
Copyright © 1999 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.