The Israelites are on the verge of entering Canaan at the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”). They are in Kadesh-Barnea, an oasis in the wilderness of Paran that is close to a hilly ridge on the border of Canaan. The tribes are camped in marching formation, and all the men over 20, who will fight any upcoming battles, have been counted. The portable sanctuary (mishkan) is completed, and God’s cloud hovers over the inner sanctum, where the ark of the covenant rests.
The only problem is that the people keep complaining, and God keeps dealing with it by killing the worst complainers. Nevertheless, God has led the survivors all the way to the border of Canaan. This week’s portion begins with God giving Moses permission to send scouts for himself into Canaan.
Sending in scouts is standard military procedure before a conquest. When Moses’s twelve scouts return, they all agree that Canaan is good land, full of milk, honey, and fruit. (They bring back a gigantic bunch of grapes as evidence.) Two of them, Caleb and Joshua, predict that the Israelites will go up and conquer the land, with God’s help. But the other ten scouts say that the inhabitants of Canaan are giants, too strong for the Israelites to conquer. Then the “entire assembly” of Israel wails:
If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why is God bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will be taken captive. Isn’t it better for us to return to Egypt? Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt! (Numbers/Bemidbar 14:3-4)
God (according to this story) is infuriated by the people’s rejection, and assumes that they doubt God has the power to make their conquest successful.
I think that what the Israelites actually doubt is God’s commitment to them. And they have a point. Once again, Moses has to persuade God not to simply annihilate everybody on the spot. God compromises by decreeing that the Israelites must wander in the wilderness for another 40 years, until everyone over 20 has died—except for Caleb and Joshua, who in reward for their faithfulness will live long enough to enter Canaan. God sensibly decides to presume that those under 20 are innocent, so they can enter the land as adults at the end of the 40 years.
Ironically, God is giving the Israelites what they said they wanted, when they despaired of conquering Canaan and wailed: If only we had died in this wilderness! But when Moses gives them the news, they are not pleased.
Moses spoke these words to all the children of Israel, and the people cursed themselves very much. They got up early in the morning and they went up to the top of the hill, saying: Here we are! And we will go up to the place that God said, because we were wrong! (Numbers/Bemidbar 14:39-40)
But Moses said: Why are you going beyond the word of God? That will not succeed! Do not go up, because God is not in your midst, and you will be defeated in the face of your enemies. For the Amalekite and the Canaanite are there in front of you, and you will fall by the sword; since you turned away from following God, then God will not be with you. (Numbers 14:41-43)
Yet they stormed up to the top of the hill. But the ark of the covenant of God, and Moses, did not budge from the middle of the camp. Then the Amalekite and the Canaanite, who were staying on that hill, came south and beat and battered them until the chormah. (Numbers 14:44-45)
chormah (חָרְמָה) = a possible place-name; the verb charam (חָרַם)= destroy utterly, dedicate to utter destruction for the sake of God + the suffix ah = toward
I feel sorry for the men who admit they were wrong, and try to correct their mistake, only to be utterly destroyed for the sake of God. I am also impressed by their sheer stupidity. How can they fail to see that they will fail?
These men know they did something wrong, or God would not have sentenced them to die in the wilderness. The men assume their misdeed was simply refusing to climb the ridge into the land of Canaan. It does not occur to them that a more serious misdeed was refusing to obey God, or that the worst of all was deciding to abandon God and return to Egypt.
Moses points out that rushing up the ridge without God’s permission will never succeed, because they turned away from following God. But the men do not listen to Moses, even though he has spoken for God ever since he and God freed them from slavery in Egypt. Neither do they do not attach any meaning to the fact that Moses and the ark remain in the camp with the women and children (and, presumably, the subset of men who did not try to storm the ridge). Ignoring all evidence, the men who rush up the ridge actually believe that by doing what God ordered in the first place, they can change God’s mind and win a reprieve from being sentenced to die in the wilderness.
They are only human. I bet all human beings, at some point in their lives, realize that they have made a terrible mistake, and try to fix it by turning back the clock and doing it right this time. The problem is that we cannot turn back time. There are no second chances.
Once the Israelite men reject God and God’s plan for entering Canaan, they cannot change themselves back into innocent followers of God. Saying we were wrong is a good beginning of an apology, although they also need to acknowledge their rejection of God, and repent. That is the best they could do. Then they would merit whatever fate God deemed appropriate for people who had been unfaithful, but now were reforming. They could not have started conquering Canaan as if nothing had happened, but perhaps God would have softened their sentence.
Similarly, someone who has lied or cheated on a spouse cannot return to the original situation and do it over again, getting it right this time. Once you have betrayed someone’s trust, the best you can do is to apologize and repent. And even if the betrayed spouse forgives the betrayer, the marriage will not be the same. The same principle applies to a betrayal between friends, or between a parent and child.
There are no second chances; the story of the men who rush up the hill after it is too late only illustrates how our world works. Nevertheless, we can do better than that band of Israelites, if we are willing to study our own mistakes and misdeeds. With humility and deep reflection, we can change our approach to life, and make better choices when we encounter challenges in the future.
May we receive the strength to do this had inner work. May we receive the grace to accept where we are now, even if we wish we had never left Egypt. And may we receive the insight to make better and better choices.