By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
July 13, 2002
In the final weeks of his life, Moshe recounts the events of
the past forty years. He begins by retelling the episode of the sin of the
scouts, which explains why the generation of the Exodus did not enter the Land
of Israel directly, but were doomed to die in the wilderness. Then, Moshe
relates how the people defied Hashem’s decree and tried to take the Land of
Israel without Hashem’s aid, but were dealt a crushing defeat by the Emorites.
Gradually, the consequences of their sin became clearer to them:
And you returned (VATASHUVU) and wept before Hashem, but Hashem did not
hearken to your voice nor did He give ear to you, So you remained in Kadesh
many days (YAMIM RABIM), like the days that you remained (KAYAMIM ASHER
Y’SHAVTEM) (Devarim 1:45-46).
The weeping of the Children of Israel seems to express regret, as we find
during the original account of these events:
And the people mourned greatly (Bamidbar 14:39).
If so, then why did Hashem not listen? Why does Moshe now
emphasize that, as a result, they remained in Kadesh the place from which
they had dispatched the scouts many days, like the days that you remained (KAYAMIM
ASHER Y’SHAVTEM)? And what is the meaning of this final apparently redundant
Sforno (R. Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, c. 1470-c.1550) makes three points here
regarding the role of repentance: first, he argues, even sincere repentance
would not have been accepted, because the sin of the scouts included a
desecration of Hashem’s Name (chillul Hashem), which only the generation’s
death could remove (see 86a and Rambam, Laws of Repentance 1:4). Secondly,
Hashem’s decree was irreversible, because it was combined with an oath; Sforno
here refers to the following Talmudic teaching (Rosh Hashana 18a; Yevamot
Rav Shmuel bar-Ami said some say, Rabbi Shmuel bar-Nachmani
said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan What is the source for the idea that a
divine decree that has an oath with it is never torn up? As it is said (Shmuel
I 3:14), “And therefore have I sworn regarding the house of ‘Eli that the
iniquity of the house of Eli will not be atoned by sacrifice or by
In the final analysis, says Sforno, the people’s repentance, coming as it did
only after Moshe, Yehoshua and Calev pointed out the consequences of their
actions, could not have been genuine: it was only fear of the punishment that
motivated them. In this way, the people of Israel behaved like Kayin (Bereishit
4:9-15), Shaul (Shmuel I 15:16-30) and the aforementioned sons of Eli, all of
whom expressed regret only after they learned of their punishment.
It would appear that Sforno understands VATASHUVU in the sense of And you
returned, with the connotation of “and afterward you wept”
- by which time it was too late.
Malbim (R. Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael, 1809-1877), on the other hand,
disagrees, saying that VATASHUVU (from SHUV) suggests sincere repentance (TESHUVAH,
also from SHUV), so his translation might be
And you repented and wept before Hashem.
However, it was too late to rescind the decree:
Hashem did not hearken to your voice nor did He give ear to you.
On this point, Malbim most likely concurs with Sforno’s first two points: the
element of chillul Hashem and the fact that the Divine decree was combined
with an oath. Nevertheless, Hashem while not removing the decree did
respond to the people’s weeping by diminishing the sentence of forty years’
wandering in the wilderness somewhat.
This idea is reflected in the comments of Rashi. On the words
but Hashem did not hearken to your voice,
Rashi says that, as it were, the people’s deeds made the Attribute of Divine
Mercy (identified with the name Hashem) behave as though it was cruel. Rashi
seems to be saying that Hashem is punishing here with mercy. Furthermore, on
So you remained in Kadesh many days (YAMIM RABIM), like the days that you
remained (KAYAMIM ASHER Y’SHAVTEM),
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, Seder Olam, says that the “many days” the people
remained in Kadesh was 19 years, exactly half of the 38 years that they
actually wandered. (The scouts were sent out in the beginning of the second
year, and the beginning of the conquest of the land was in the fortieth year.)
But the time in which we wandered from Kadesh Barnea until we
crossed the Zered Stream was thirty-eight years, until all the generation of
the men of war had come to an end from among the camp, as Hashem had sworn to
them (Devarim 2:14).
Thus, the “many days” in Kadesh was equal to “the days that
you remained” wandering throughout the other years of travel. Consequently,
there were only 19 years of truly arduous journeys.
Although this was far from ideal repentance, Hashem’s mercy reduced the
A central theme of much of the book of Devarim is Teshuvah. Moshe uses this
example of imperfect repentance as a means of instruction, so the people of
Israel will avoid past errors. They must see just how far-reaching is Hashem’s
mercy. It is crucial that this is understood by the people before they claim
their inheritance and begin their new life in the Land of Israel.
And we, who read of these events before mourning the loss of the Land of
Israel on Tish’ah B’Av, need to be reminded as well of the centrality of our
repentance and the greatness of Hashem’s mercy to our ultimate redemption.