Classic Questions

Why did Moshe not pray that the Jewish people be forgiven, as he did after the sin of the Golden Calf? (v. 14:13-16)

Ramban: Perhaps Moshe knew that the Jewish people would not be forgiven in this case. Thus he only begged G‑d that their punishment should be delayed, and not waived altogether (Ramban to v. 17).

Shach al Hatorah: It must be that G‑d only wished to destroy the mixed multitude of converts who had sinned in this case, and not the Jewish people themselves. For otherwise, why would Moshe not pray for them to be saved? Proof for this point is that Moshe did not mention the merit of the Patriarchs, as he did after the sin of the Golden Calf, because the mixed multitude were not descended from the Patriarchs (Shach al Hatorah to v. 12).

Ohr haChayim: Moshe began with the word “And” (“And [what will] the Egyptians [think]…” v. 13), as if to say, “In addition to the arguments I presented in defense of the Jewish people by the sin of the Golden Calf, I wish to add the following…”

The Rebbe's Teachings

Moshe’s Prayer (v. 13ff)

After the Jewish people lost faith in G‑d’s promise to bring them to the Land of Israel (14:1-4), G‑d told Moshe that He planned to destroy them: “I’m going to strike them with a plague and eliminate them” (v. 12).

Remarkably, we do not find that Moshe prayed for the Jewish people to be saved in their own right, as he did after the sin of the Golden Calf. Rather, Moshe’s only argument was what the nations of the world might say: “[What will] the Egyptians [think when they] hear that [You killed the Jewish people? They’ll say,] 'You did bring this nation out from among them with great power, but... [You weren’t able to defeat] the inhabitants of this Land...’” (v. 13-4).

Why did Moshe appear to care only what the nations would think, and not about the actual elimination of the Jewish people?

The Explanation

It is a common perception that punishment for sin is a form of Divine retribution, whereby G‑d enacts justice against those who disobey His words. In truth, however, a Torah “punishment” is not a reaction on the part of G‑d, but an inevitable consequence that is caused by the sinner.

The Torah makes this point clear in Parshas Bechukosai: “If you treat Me offhandedly... then I too will be offhand with you.” The use of the same term (“offhandedly... offhand”) in reference to man and G‑d indicates that we are speaking here of a cause and effect relationship. It is not the case that when man offends G‑d, G‑d then “gets even” by striking man; rather, it is a matter of fact that when a person shuns the observance of G‑d’s commands, he inevitably shuns the blessings that would have come as a consequence of that observance.

The same could be argued in our case, with the sin of the spies. Without miracles, it was impossible for the Jewish people to defeat the mighty inhabitants of the Land of Israel, as the spies had themselves verified. Thus, when G‑d promised the Jewish people that they would enter the Land, He had implicitly promised them a supernatural victory. But in order to merit G‑d’s miracles, the Jewish people needed to have faith, for by putting their trust in G‑d they would then make themselves into suitable receptacles for G‑d’s supernatural blessings.

So G‑d was not revoking His earlier decision to bring the Jewish people into the Land due to their lack of faith and bad behavior. Rather, being that the miraculous victory was going to be a consequence of their faith, when the faith proved to be lacking, there was nothing left to bring the victory.

Therefore, Moshe had no grounds on which to complain to G‑d, for G‑d had not made any decision here at all. Rather the Jewish people had made the decision to shun G‑d’s offer to break the laws of nature for them by denying His ability to do so. G‑d merely informed Moshe of the consequences of the Jewish people’s actions, that they will die and be replaced with another nation. To this Moshe replied that G‑d would be losing rather than gaining, for destroying the Jewish people due to lack of faith would only lead to a much greater loss of faith among the nations, who would then say, “It is because G‑d lacked the ability to bring this nation to the Land which He swore to them, that He slaughtered them in the desert” (v. 16).

And G‑d replied, “I have forgiven them because of your words” (v. 20).

The Forty-Year Decree (v. 20ff)

While G‑d chose not to eliminate them instantly, He nevertheless decreed that they would die out in the desert over a period of forty years. This begs the question: Why did G‑d not forgive them completely?

It could be argued that G‑d Himself explained why this was the case, through His oath in verse 22: “[I swear] that all the people who, while seeing My glory and the miraculous signs that I performed in Egypt  and in the desert, have tested (וינסו) Me these ten times and not listened to My voice... ”

Rashi comments (ibid.) that the term וינסו has its usual connotation of “testing” in this verse, and does not refer to “angering” (as Chizkuni argues).

But why would we think that וינסו means “and they angered,” such that Rashi has to warn us otherwise, when the usual translation of the word is “and they tested,” as Rashi himself writes?

The difference between “testing” G‑d and “angering” G‑d, at the literal level, is that G‑d becomes “angry” when His commands are disobeyed, whereas “testing” G‑d refers to a crisis of faith.

Since verse 22 concludes that they “have not listened to My voice,” i.e., a failure to obey G‑d’s commands, we would think that the verse refers to angering, and not testing G‑d.

However, Rashi was dissatisfied with this interpretation, as it appears to be inconsistent with the broader context of the story. For in this passage G‑d is explaining why He had not forgiven the Jewish people completely for the sin of the spies, which was due to a crisis of faith and was not a direct rebellion against the observance of G‑d’s commands. So Rashi writes that despite the immediate context of the verse, which appears to speak of disobeying and angering G‑d (as Chizkuni argues), in the broader context of the narrative, “וינסו has its usual meaning,” of testing G‑d.

“Lacking Belief in G‑d” and “Testing G‑d”

Why were the Jewish people left to wander in the desert for forty years as a result of testing G‑d?

The reader will remember that earlier, in verse 12, when G‑d had intended to eliminate the Jewish people completely, His complaint was, “How much longer will they refuse to believe in Me after all the miraculous signs I have performed in their midst?” G‑d, however, did forgive the Jewish people for not believing in Him, after hearing Moshe’s prayers. But here, in verse 22, G‑d explained that He could not forgive the Jewish people completely, because they “have tested Me these ten times.” The reader will thus wonder: Why is it that G‑d can forgive a lack of belief, but He will not forgive the Jewish people for testing Him?

The fact that the Jewish people “refuse to believe in Me after all the miraculous signs I have performed in their midst” is because on reflection, after the miracles had occurred, they found them unconvincing. This problem could potentially be solved if G‑d would perform a miracle of unprecedented proportions—as the verse states, “If they do not believe you, and they do not heed the voice of the first sign, they will believe the voice of the latter sign” (Shemos 4:8).

“Testing” G‑d, however, is not merely a “cooling” of faith after witnessing a miracle, but rather, a lack of faith at the very moment G‑d is performing the miracle—as verse 22 states, “all the people who, while seeing My glory and the miraculous signs that I performed in Egypt and in the desert, have tested Me.”

To clarify this unique quality of a test over a lack of belief, Rashi cites a number of examples of a test: “Twice at the sea, twice with the manna, twice with the quails”:

  • At the sea the people declared, “Just as we go up from this side, so will the Egyptians go up from the other side,” i.e., they lacked faith as they were witnessing the miracle of the splitting of the sea.
  • The people complained about the manna as they were receiving this unique, miraculous type of food.
  • When the people complained, “Who will give us meat to eat?” (Bamidbar 11:4), they already had quails, which were being supplied to them miraculously in the desert, but nevertheless they questioned whether G‑d could give them more meat (Rashi on Arachin ibid.).

Based on the above, we can also understand why Rashi mentions only six of the ten tests, and directs the reader to Tractate Arachin to find the other four. At first glance, he should either have informed us of all ten, or just directed us to the Talmud in the first place.

However, Rashi cites the above examples specifically (and refers the reader to Tractate Arachin for the remainder), as these clearly reflect the concept of a “test” which is being described here, at the literal level. In this way, the reader will understand why G‑d could forgive the Jewish people for a lack of belief, but that after they tested Him repeatedly, G‑d saw no hope.

The lesson of course, is an obvious one: to be grateful for all the wonders which G‑d shows the Jewish people.

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 23, p. 104ff. )