Small Mistakes/Major Consequences or “I Didn’t Mean to Do It” Isn’t Always Good Enough

And all of the congregation lifted up its voice, and cried; and the people wept that night. (Sefer BeMidbar 14:1)

1.  The sin of the spies shaped Jewish history

Parshat Shelach describes the sin of the spies.  In the opening passages of the parasha, Hashem authorizes Moshe to send spies into the land of Israel.  These spies will bring back a report on the land.

The spies return and they describe the fertility and abundance of the land.  However, they also note that the inhabitants of the land are mighty and their cities are heavily fortified.  The people respond with panic.  The spies then modify their report on the richness of the land and suggest that perhaps the land is not healthy.

The people decide to abandon their journey to the Land of Cana’an. They wish to replace Moshe with a new leader and return to Egypt.  Hashem threatens to destroy the nation and replace it with a new nation composed of the descendants of Moshe.  Moshe intercedes and Hashem agrees to spare the nation.  However, this generation that rejected the promised land will not take possession of it.  Instead, this generation will wander in the wilderness for another thirty-eight years.  Their children will take possession of the land.

Commenting on the above passage, our Sages explain that the sin of the spies had another more significant impact.   Not only did the sin condemn the generation to wander in the wilderness, it also altered the course of the nation’s history.  Before this sin Bnai Yisrael traveled along a historical path that led to permanent possession of the land.  The destiny of the nation was to possess the land and never experience exile.  The sin altered this destiny.  Now, the nation’s historical path was redirected toward a future that included eventual dispossession of the land, exile, and suffering.[1]  Ultimately, Bnai Yisrsel would take permanent possession of the land. However, this would not be accomplished in the coming days or weeks.  It would be postponed for centuries – until the Messianic era.

Remember what Hashem your G-d did to Miryam, by the way as you came forth out of Egypt. (Sefer Devarim 24:9)

2.  The spies and their generation should have learned a lesson from Miryam

The Midrash notes that the Torah juxtaposes this account to the sin of Miryam and Aharon.  Miryam and Aharon spoke against their brother Moshe.  Because Miryam initiated this sin she was stricken with leprosy.  The nation should have taken notice of this sin and Miryam’s punishment and learned from it.  Instead, the people, led by the spies, spoke out against the land and disparaged it.[2]

The Midrash is difficult to understand.  How was the sin of Miryam and Aharon similar to the sin of the spies and their generation?  It seems that Miryam and Aharon violated the prohibition of speaking against another person.  We are prohibited from harming another with speech.  Presumably, Miryam and Aharon violated this prohibition through their criticism of Moshe.  How was this wrongdoing similar to the sin of the spies?  Did they harm the land through speaking against it?  Is the Land of Israel a person that is harmed by slander?

There are a number of solutions to this problem.   Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l suggests that identifying the relationship between these two sins requires a better understanding of the sin of Miryam nd Aharon.

In the above passage, the Torah enjoins us to remember the punishment of Miryam.  There are very few events that the Torah commands us to constantly remember.  For example, we are required to not forget Revelation.[3]  We are required to remember Shabbat as the day on which Hashem rested from recreation.[4]  As these examples illustrate, the few events that we are required to constantly remember are fundamental to the Torah perspective.  The authenticity of the Torah rests upon Revelation.  The foremost mitzvah of the Torah is recognition of Hashem as the creator and absolute ruler of the universe. Miryam’s sin and her punishment do not seem nearly as fundamental to the Torah as the other material we are enjoined to constantly remember.  Why then must we conscientiously remind ourselves of her punishment?

And Miryam and Aharon spoke against Moshe because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman.  And they said: Has Hashem indeed spoken only with Moshe? Has He not spoken also with us? And Hashem heard it. (Sefer BeMidbar 13:1-2)

3.  The severity of Miryam and Aharon’s sin

The answer lies in considering Miyram and Aharon’s comments about their brother Moshe.   The Torah is vague on this issue.  It tells us that their comments involved Moshe’s relationship with his wife Tziporah.  Also, it tells us that Miryam and Aharon asserted that they – like Moshe – were prophets.  Our Sages provide more details about Miryam and Aharon’s comments. They explain that Moshe had separated from Tziporah.[5]  Miyram and Aharon understood that this decision was related to Moshe’s exalted status as a prophet. They challenged the appropriateness of Moshe’s separation from his wife.  They were also prophets.  Yet, they lived normal family lives surrounded by their spouses and children.  Why should Moshe’s prophetic stature demand or justify his abandonment of family life?[6]

The issue raised by Miryam and Aharon was based upon an incorrect premise.  They understood that Moshe’s prophetic status surpassed their own.  However, they believed that the difference was quantitative.  They were prophets.  Moshe was a greater prophet.  Miryam and Aharon did not understand that Moshe was qualitatively differentiated from all other prophets.  Maimonides’ provides a description of the differences between the prophecy of Moshe and other prophets.[7]  The differences can be summarized.  For all other prophets, prophecy was an unnatural state.  Prophecy was achieved through a difficult and temporary transcension from the prophet’s normal material state to a barely sustainable spiritual plane.  Moshe was a completely different prophet-type.  For Moshe the prophetic experience was a natural state.  No transcension took place.

This difference between Moshe and other prophets is among the thirteen fundamental principles of the Torah enumerated by Maimonides.[8]  It is also the foundation of two other of the thirteen principles.

The first of these is that Hashem communicated the Written and Oral Torah to Moshe at Sinai.  Moshe then taught the Torah to Bnai Yisrael.[9]  For Moshe to serve in this capacity – as recipient of the Torah – he entered into a prolonged prophetic dialogue with Hashem.  The proposition that such an experience can be achieved by a mortal assumes that Moshe was unique among human beings.  He could achieve that which is unattainable by any other human being.  In short, Revelation assumes the existence of a human being with Moshe’s unique prophetic capacity.

The second of these principles is that Revelation was a singular prophetic experience.  All other prophecies are qualitatively inferior.  In fact, the authenticity of any other prophetic message is only determined by its consistency with specific criteria outlined in the Torah.  One of these is that the message must be consistent with the Torah.  If the prophet claims that he has been commanded by Hashem to add to, subtract from, or change any of the mitzvot of the Torah the prophecy and its messenger are assumed to be frauds.[10]

Miryam’s contention that she and Aharon shared with Moshe a common prophetic status undermined the authenticity and authority of Revelation and the Torah.  This is the reason she was stricken with leprosy.  This is the reason that we must remember this episode and contemplate its meaning and implications.[11],[12]

And all the children of Israel murmured against Moshe and against Aharon. And the whole congregation said unto them: Would that we had died in the land of Egypt or would we had died in this wilderness!  And why does Hashem bring us unto this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will be a prey. Were it not better for us to return into Egypt?  And they said one to another: Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt. (Sefer BeMidbar 14:2-4)

4.  The severity of the sin of the spies and their generation

Now, we more clearly understand the sin committed by Miryam and Aharon.   We must develop a clearer understanding of the sin of the spies and their generation.  It is clear from the Torah’s narrative and from the impact of this sin upon Jewish destiny that the sin was severe.  However, it is not clear why this rebellion was more grave than those that preceded it or followed.  The spies returned with a wonderful report on the land they had explored.  They spoke of its fertility and abundance.  However, their wonderment did not inspire them.  It could not overcome their fear of the mighty nations that inhabited Can’an.  They communicated this fear to an already timid nation.  The ensuing panic is understandable.  They were not ready to accept the challenge of conquest.  Why was their sin so grave?

The nation viewed the issue from a completely personal perspective.  They understood that the land was a wonderful legacy.  However, they were willing to forgo the land rather than risk their own destruction.  They failed to understand that the events in which they were involved had an enormous meaning – a meaning more important than the impact upon them personally.  They had been selected as the generation through which an ancient promise would be fulfilled and through which the fundamental mission of humanity would be advanced.

Hashem had promised to Avraham and the Partiarchs that their descendants would return to the Land of Cana’an and possess it.  However, their possession of the land would not be merely the fulfillment of this ancient promise.  It would complete a process of overpowering revelation.  All humanity would be transformed by the events that would unfold.   This collection of oppressed and ignoble slaves had overcome the mightiest nation of the era.   The waters of the sea had split for them and fallen upon their pursuers.  Now, they would swiftly capture the land promised to their forefathers.  The nations of the land would flee before them.  They would dare not oppose the nation that had miraculously overpowered their mighty masters, and before whom the waters of the sea had parted.  Humanity would witness history’s most astounding revelation of Hashem’s omnipotence.  Humanity would be presented with incontrovertible evidence of the existence of a creator who is intimately involved in the affairs of the world.  What impact might this revelation have had upon humanity?  How might have these events altered the course of human history?

This generation refused to participate in this drama. Instead, they longed to return to Egypt.  As a result, the anticipated drama was compromised and its impact blunted.  Ultimately, this generation’s descendants entered and conquered the Land of Cana’an.  The promise to the Patriarchs was fulfilled.  However, the vision was not fulfilled.  The nations of the world were unmoved.  Humanity was condemned to endless years of darkness and folly.

The sin of the spies and their generation is truly comparable to Miryam and Aharon’s sin.  In both instances the sin undermined a fundamental element of the Torah.  Miryam and Aharon’s sin called into question the uniqueness of Moshe’s prophecy.  The spies and their generation compromised the achievement of Hashem’s vision for humanity.

5.  Small mistakes and major consequences

It is important to understand that in neither of these instances did the sinner appreciate the enormity of the sin.  Miryam and Aharon acted out of shock and concern with Moshe’s behavior.  The spies and their generation were driven by intense fear.   Miryam and Aharon did not intend to undermine fundamental principles of the Torah.  The spies did not wish to compromise Hashem’s plan for humanity.

From the episode of the spies a practical lesson emerges.  The spies and their generation did not appreciate the significance of their sin.  They may have understood that they lacked courage and that their timidity prevented them from following Hashem’s directive.  However, they did not comprehend the impact of their decision upon the destiny of their nation and upon humanity. They viewed the challenge facing them on a personal level.  On a personal level it was easier to succumb to their fears than to arise and grasp the wondrous legacy awaiting them.  They would forgo the legacy rather than battle their terror.  They may very well have known that they were sinning.  But they regarded the sin as excusable and minor.

The flaw in their thinking was their belief that they fully understood the meaning and purpose of Hashem’s commands.  They imagined that their vision was Hashem’s vision.  Therefore, they assumed that they understood the proportions and magnitude of their sin.

We cannot judge the significance of our own sins.  We lack the knowledge of our individual place and our potential within the unfolding plans of Hashem.  We also lack the objectivity to soberly evaluate the significance of our own wrongdoings.

We cannot be perfect.  We inevitably will experience failures and we will disappoint ourselves.  However, we can be honest and not minimize our wrongdoing.  If we have the courage to be honest with ourselves then at least our failures will be motivators for self improvement.


[1] Midrash Rabbah, Sefer BeMidbar 16:20.

[2] Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Shelach, Chapter 5.

[3] Sefer Devarim 4:9-10.

[4] Sefer Shemot 20:8.

[5] Targum Unkelus Sefer BeMidbar 12:1.

[6] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 12:2.

[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaDat 7:6.

[8] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.

[9] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.

[10] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaDat 8:3.

[11] Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Recorded Lecture on Parshat Shelach.

[12] The preceding analysis of the sin of Miryam and Aharon was developed by Rav Soloveitchik in the referenced lecture.  The analysis of the sin of the spies and their generation, which follows, differs somewhat from Rav Soloveitchik’s interpretation.