Dreams of Eternity

And Hashem said: I have pardoned according to your word. But indeed, as I live – and all the earth shall be filled with the glory of Hashem – surely all those men who have seen My glory, and My signs, that I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have tested Me these ten times, and have not hearkened to My voice surely they shall not see the land which I swore unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that despised Me see it.  (Sefer BeMidbar 14:20-23) [1]

Moshe sends spies to report on the Land of Cana’an

Parshat Shelach describes an incident of the meraglim – the spies. Hashem tells Moshe that he may send out spies to explore the Land of Cana’an – the land that has been promised to Bnai Yisrael. The missions of the spies is to bring back a report on the land – to confirm that it is indeed a land that flows with milk and honey. However, the spies are also told to consider the land’s fortifications and the obstacles that the people may face in its conquest.

The spies go forth on their mission; they return and they deliver their report to Moshe and Aharon and to the nation.  They confirm that the land is indeed wonderfully fertile.  It does flow with milk and honey. However, they describe with awe the might of its inhabitants and the defenses of its cities.

The spies incite a rebellion and Hashem decrees He will destroy the nation

The people receive the report and are overtaken by fear and panic. They do not believe that they can succeed in conquering the land. They begin to consider abandoning the entire project and returning to Egypt.

Hashem responds. He has demonstrated to Bnai Yisrael His omnipotence. They witnessed the wonders that He performed in redeeming them from Egypt and in sustaining the nation in the wilderness.  Yet, they do not trust that He can and will lead them in their conquest of the Land of Cana’an. Hashem tells Moshe that He will destroy this nation.  He will create from Moshe a new nation that will be more worthy of the land promised to the Patriarchs.

Moshe intercedes and secures Hashem’s forgiveness

Moshe intercedes. He argues with Hashem. Hashem performed unprecedented miracles in Egypt in order to reveal Himself and His omnipotence. If He will now destroy Bnai Yisrael, the impact of that revelation will be compromised. The nations of the world will skeptically suggest that Hashem destroyed His own people rather than allow them to face defeat at the hands of the mighty nations of the Land of Cana’an. His destruction of His own nation will be interpreted as tacit acknowledgment of His inability to win the land for His people. Moshe then appealed to Hashem’s mercy and forbearance.

Hashem responded. He told Moshe that He would forgive Bnai Yisrael.  However, Hashem told Moshe that He would not spare this generation that had witnessed His wonders and yet not trusted in Him. This generation would perish in the wilderness and their children would take possession of the land promised to the patriarchs.

Hashem’s forgiveness is not total

Hashem’s response to Moshe is difficult to understand. Hashem told Moshe He would destroy the nation and create a new nation from Moshe. He then told Moshe that He forgave the people. Yet, He condemned the entire generation to perish in the wilderness. In other words, before Moshe’s intervention, Hashem’s plan was to destroy the nation.  After Moshe’s intervention and Hashem’s pronouncement that He forgave the people, the generation that committed the sin remained condemned to death. How was Hashem’s forgiveness expressed?

There is one obvious outcome of Hashem’s forbearance. Before Hashem forgave the people, neither they, nor their descendants, would possess the land. A new nation would be created from Moshe and this new nation would be the beneficiaries of the covenant with the Patriarchs. Hashem’s forgiveness saved the children and descendants of the generation that had sinned. These children and descendants would possess the Land of Cana’an. In other words, it seems that Moshe’s petition did not persuade Hashem to pardon the generation that had sinned. It only impacted the destiny of their children and descendants.

If this analysis is correct, then a serious problem arises.  This interpretation simply is not consistent with Hashem’s declaration of His forgiveness. According to this interpretation, He only “forgave” those who were children or yet unborn. Is that the meaning of Hashem’s declaration that He forgave the people? Those who committed the sin remained condemned to die in the wilderness and only those relatively guiltless were to survive.

And Nadav and Abihu died before Hashem, when they offered strange fire before Hashem, in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children; and Eleazar and Ithamar ministered in the priest’s office in the presence of Aharon their father.  (Sefer BeMidbar 3:4)

Nadav and Avihu died because they did not have children

Let us consider an odd comment found in the Talmud that reveals an important and relevant principle. In Parshat BeMidbar the Torah lists the sons of Aharon. It explains that Nadav and Avihu died when they offered an alien – an unauthorized – sacrifice before Hashem. The passage then adds that these two sons of Aharon did not have children. The Talmud comments that this passage seems to relate the death of Nadav and Avihu to not having children. This teaches us that one who does not have children is worthy of death.[2]

This is a very strange interpretation of the passage and an even more shocking conclusion.  The passage is explicit in its explanation of the death of Nadav and Avihu.  The passage explains that they died because they offered an unacceptable sacrifice. It adds that they did not have children. It is not stating that their failure to procreate was the reason for their death. What motivated the Talmud to attribute the deaths of Nadav and Avihu to not having children and to further conclude that failure to procreate is a sin of such terrible consequence?  The Talmud is communicating an important principle of the Torah.  In order to identify that principle and understand the Talmud’s comments one more step is required.

And when Yaakov completed charging his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and expired, and was gathered unto his people.  (Sefer Beresheit 49:33)

The Talmud declares that Yaakov did not die

The Talmud comments on the above passage that in fact Yaakov did not die. What does the Talmud mean by this statement? The Torah describes Yaakov’s death, his embalming, and burial. In fact, the Talmud raises this very objection and responds that just as Yaakov’s children live, so does Yaakov live! [3]

A number of the commentators on this discussion in the Talmud conclude that it is not the Talmud’s intention to dispute the meaning of the Torah’s passages that describe Yaakov’s death. The Talmud accepts that Yaakov was mortal and his life ended as the Torah describes. However, despite this death Yaakov lives, just as his children continue to survive.[4] In other words, Yaakov continues to live through his children.

On the surface this seems to be an overused and exhausted platitude. Yes, of course, we all live-on through our children!  But what does this really mean?  Is the Talmud interested only in providing its own version of a trite notion?

Illusions of immortality

Understanding the Talmud’s message requires that we better understand the more common sentiment expressed by the notion that one continues to live through one’s children and descendants. This will allow us to compare this common notion to the principle the Sages of the Talmud are proposing.

We are mortal and finite individuals. Ultimately, we must each deal with our mortality and the inevitability of our own eventual passing.  When we are young, our end seems far off.  It does not trouble us or demand our attention.  As we mature, our mortality becomes more evident. We cannot imagine or accept our ultimate demise; yet, its inevitability cannot be denied.  We attempt to somehow defeat death and overcome the inevitable end of all human beings. We do this through our children. We assert that we will continue to live through our children and grandchildren.  If we strongly identify with our children and grandchildren, then the idea that we will continue to live through them gives us some solace and relief from our fear of the abyss.

But our consolation is really only an attempt to deny the inevitable. We will not achieve immortality through our children and descendants. Yes, our children will remember and love us. Our grandchildren will recall us fondly. But our great-grandchildren will know of us only through stories they hear about us and their children will know little or nothing of our lives. Our “immortality” will continue to exist only as an ever-diminishing remnant of genetic material passed on to each consecutive generation of descendants.

The Talmud’s principle of immortality

This is the common interpretation of the notion that we continue to live through our children.  The Torah’s interpretation of this notion is very different from the common sentiment and is a fundamental principle of our outlook.

The Sages of the Talmud are explaining that we each exist in two frameworks. Each of us is a unique individual. Each of us is also a link within a chain of the generation of the Jewish people. As an individual, each of us is charged with the responsibility of making the most of the life that has been granted to him or her. As a link within the chain of the Jewish people, each of us is obligated to create the next link. That link is created through having children and through raising one’s children to be the next link in the chain. In other words, we each are granted two lives. The life we are granted as an individual is quite finite and it ends with each individual’s personal demise. The life that we are each granted as a link in the chain of our people does not end as long as the chain remains. Only when the chain – G-d forbid – is broken does that life come to an end.

Yaakov’s life as a unique individual ended with his personal demise. The Talmud is not suggesting that he did not really die. However, Yaakov – like each of us – had another life. That life did not end when he was embalmed and buried. As the Talmud explains, that life continues to this day and will continue as long as Bnai Yisrael – the nation of Yaakov – continues to exist.[5]

The totality of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu

This principle also explains the Talmud’s comments regarding Nadav and Avihu. They died in response to offering an inappropriate offering. But when they were stricken down, more than their individual lives came to an end.  They had not created families and children. The tragedy of their deaths as individuals was compounded by the catastrophe of the ending of one of the chains that compose our people. No more links would be created from Nadav and Avihu. Two families within the Jewish nation were destroyed.

Hashem did not annihilate the generation of the spies

Now, Hashem’s response to Moshe’s petition has meaning.  Hashem’s original decree was that the members of the generation that heeded the counsel of the spies should be destroyed.  They were to die as individuals and their families were to be cut- off from the nation of Hashem. Children would either perish with their parents or be left to wander in the wilderness.  But these children would not form the next generation of the Jewish people. Instead, Moshe’s descendants would become the nation of Hashem and this new Moshe-nation would be the beneficiaries of the covenant with the Patriarchs.  The members of the generation of the spies would die as individuals and as links in the chain of our nation.

Moshe won Hashem’s forgiveness of the people. He did not save their individual lives but he did save them as links in the chain of our nation. Each would have the opportunity to create a family and their children would possess the land promised to their forefathers.  Each had the opportunity to continue to live indefinitely as links in the chain of our people.

[1] Reprinted from 5775 with minor revisions.

[2] Mesechet Yevamot 64a.

[3] Mesechet Taanit 5b.

[4] See Rabbaynu Yaakov ben Shlomo ibn Habib, Ein Yaakov, M’sorat HaShas edition, Lekutim, Mesechet Taanit 5b.

[5] Rabbaynu Yaakov ben Shlomo ibn Habib, Ein Yaakov, M’sorat HaShas edition, Lekutim, Mesechet Taanit 5b.  See also comments of RaSbA for a similar but alternative explanation.