(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘We are now ready; let us go up to the place that God described, for we have sinned!’ (Numbers 14:40)
After the sin of the spies and the failure of the nation to enter the Land of Israel as a result of the ill-advised reconnaissance mission, divine punishment is meted out immediately. But what follows this sin and punishment is an even stranger account, which seems to challenge the very power of repentance to achieve forgiveness.
“Moses related these words [of penalty and destruction in the desert] to all the children of Israel... And they arose early in the morning and went up to the top of the mountain, saying: ‘We are now ready; let us go up to the place that God described, for we have sinned!’ And Moses said, ‘Do not go up; God is not in your midst.’...
But [the people] wickedly went up to the top of the mountain while the ark of the covenant of the Lord and Moses did not move from the midst of the encampment.
The Amalekites and the Canaanites, who dwelt on that mountain, swooped down and defeated [the Israelites], pursuing them with crushing force all the way to Hormah” (Numbers 14:39-45).
But why was God not in their midst? Why did the Almighty cause the Israelites to be defeated? They seem to have repented; they were apparently trying to make up for the sin of the scouts (spies) and get to Israel! Why is this considered an added transgression rather than an act of repentance, the repair, or tikkun, for the major transgression of the desert? I would add to this the Abarbanel’s question. What follows this incident of the ma’apilim – wicked or defiant climbers of the mountain – seems to be a string of disparate commandments unconnected to our theme of the Land: the sacrificial offerings, the gift of halla, national atonement for unwitting transgressions, the sin of the wood gatherer on Shabbat, and the commandment concerning ritual fringes. What have these laws to do with each other, and what is their connection to the sin of the scouts and the story of the ma’apilim? Let us begin by trying to comprehend the negative action of the climbers. By the perverted order of their words, the biblical text hints that we are not dealing with an act of true repentance: “We are now ready. Let us go up to the place... We have sinned” (Numbers 14:40).
Repentance demands recognition of sin and contrition for past misdeeds;
only after atonement has been made ought the individual to proceed with
an act of reparation.
Here the climbers are focused first and foremost on the place; they
mention their sin merely as an afterthought, without any expression of
The issue becomes even clearer as the text continues.
Moses tells them not to ascend the mountain because God is not in their
midst; but they are Israel-oriented rather than God-oriented, committed
to occupying a land rather than to fulfilling the divine will.
Indeed, they barely seem to recognize the relationship between the physical soil of Israel and the divine soul of Israel.
Hence, “[the people] wickedly went up to the top of the mountain while
neither the ark of the covenant of the Lord nor Moses moved out from the
midst of the encampment” (ibid. 14:44). Remember, they had been warned
only one verse previously that “up ahead are the Amalekites and the
Canaanites, and you will fall by the sword” (ibid. 14:43); and they had
already received the message that: “[Only] when the Ark [of the Lord]
went forth, would Moses say, ‘Arise Oh God and scatter your enemies, and
cause those who hate you to flee before you’” (Numbers 10:35).
Nevertheless, these defiant climbers were prepared to face their enemies
on the way to the Land of Israel, without the Ark of God and without
Apparently, they were what we might call completely secular Zionists,
who may have been committed to the Land but were blind to its divine
Perhaps this is what Rabbi Yehuda Ben Betera had in mind when he argued
against Rabbi Akiva – that Zelophehad, whose daughters insisted on their
rights of inheritance to the Land of Israel, was one of the defiant
mountain climbers (ma’apilim), and not the Shabbat desecrator who
gathered wood (B.T. Shabbat 96b).
The Bible teaches that Zelophehad died in the desert because of his sin.
Rabbi Yehuda Ben Betera refuses to accept the fact that the father of
such righteous lovers of Zion could have been guilty of a crime as major
as that of Shabbat desecration. He prefers to believe that his sin was
rather that of the ma’apilim: an incomplete appreciation of the Land of
Israel. But Zelophehad did succeed in transmitting his passion for the
Land of Israel to his daughters, who added their own commitment to God.
From this perspective, we can well understand the list of laws which
follow the incident of the ma’apilim. The Bible reminds the Israelites
that when they enter the Land, they must be mindful of the true purpose
of their presence there: offerings to God, national atonement,
commitment to Shabbat, and involvement in all 613 commandments.
The Land of Israel and the laws of the Torah must be connected as one to express the true mission and message of our nation.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.