The Idolatry of the Leaders

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Judah Kerbel

The Thirteen Middot of Mercy appear for the second time in this week’s parshah, after the sin of the Spies (chet ha-meraglim).  They appeared the first time when G-d taught Moshe how to pray after the sin of the Golden Calf (chet ha-egel). In selichot, we recite the version of the Middot from Shemot, but follow them by citing verses from both episodes. There are many other textual and thematic commonalities. In both cases, G-d reacts with anger. He threatens to destroy the entire nation save Moshe, whom he plans to make into a great nation (וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל – Shemot 32:10; Bamidbar 14:12). Moshe intervenes, attempting to persuade G-d that doing so would diminish G-d’s standing among other nations, who will assume that G-d is weak for the inability to handle this nation (Shemot 32:12; Bamidbar 13-16). All this suggests that the two sins have something fundamental in common. Yet, at first glance, the Golden Calf is a paradigmatic transgression of idolatry, while the sin of the spies relates to ingratitude or lack of faith in G-d’s promises.  What is the link between them?

Let’s start by comparing the presentation of the Attributes in each episode.

שמות פרק לד, ו-ז

וַיַּעֲבֹר יְקֹוָק עַל פָּנָיו וַיִּקְרָא יְקֹוָק יְקֹוָק אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת: נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְעַל בְּנֵי בָנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים:

במדבר פרק יד, יח

יְקֹוָק אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפָשַׁע וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים:

The LORD! the LORD! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and truth, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Shemot 34:6-7, trans. Sefaria) ‘The LORD! slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and fourth generations’ (Bamidbar 14:18, trans. Sefaria).

In Bamidbar, G-d’s name יקוק is invoked only once, not twice as in Shemot.  The version in Bamidbar also fails to mention that G-d extends kindness to the thousandth generation.  What explains these changes?

The Talmud explains that the doubled יקוק represents G-d’s mercy both before and after sin (Rosh Hashannah 17b). Rosh (Rosh HaShanah 1:5) asks: Why would we need mercy before sin?

Rosh answers that with regard to the sin of idolatry, G-d considers the thought of idolatry along with the action as one, G-d and punishes both.  Therefore, there is the need for mercy even before the act of idolatry, when it is still merely a thought. Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (Meshekh Chokhma) derives that mercy-before-sin is not needed in our parshah, as the sin of the Spies was not idolatry.

Yet, on the basis of our selichot practice, I would like to suggest that there is an aspect of idolatry involved in our parshah as well. The Gemara states that one who lives outside Eretz Yisrael is as if he worships idolatry (Ketubot 110b). (Throughout history, Jews have lived outside Eretz Yisrael due to the circumstances of exile; I do not intend to weigh in here on the issue of contemporary aliyah).  B’nei Yisrael were on the brink of entering Eretz Yisrael, yet not only did they shun the opportunity to enter the land, but they actively requested to return to Egypt (Bamidbar 14:3). In fact, the ma’apilim, those who tried later to enter the land, confessed their sin of desiring to return to Egypt (Rashi, 14:40). Implicit in this rejection of the land, in the eyes of G-d, is a rejection of G-d on the whole. G-d sees their outcry as a lack of recognition of all the miracles performed on their behalf, as in the Golden Calf episode (14:11). If the reaction of B’nei Yisrael in this episode is not itself idolatry, it entails a denial of G-d on the highest level, perhaps as if it were idolatry.

Note that while G-d forgives B’nei Yisrael after they build the golden calf, we do not achieve full forgiveness here. Perhaps earlier, they were still a young nation, and it was their first major mishap. but, as put by Rabbi Menachem Liebtag, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

An additional difference between the Middot brings to light a different explanation. Ramban (Bamidbar 14:17) explains that the phrase notzer chesed la-alafim, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, is not applicable here because Moshe cannot invoke the merits of the patriarchs on behalf of B’nei Yisrael. In Ramban’s words, “they rebelled against their ancestors and did not desire the gift that their ancestors greatly chose.” B’nei Yisrael could not be fully forgiven, especially with regard to Eretz Yisrael, because they were unable to embrace the most significant gift from G-d, that which had been the end-goal for our nation’s development from the time of Avraham Avinu. By rejecting such a significant aspect of the covenant that G-d made with the patriarchs, perhaps they were rejecting their connection with G-d on a larger scale, a further aspect of near-idolatry.

Wherever we may be for whatever reason, as we recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Yerushalayim and will soon celebrate the State of Israel’s 70th year of independence.   May we continue to recognize the miracles G-d has performed for us in recent decades and see the positive in that which happens in Eretz Yisrael.

Judah Kerbel (SBM 2015) is completing his third year at RIETS. He is also enrolled at the Bernard Revel Graduate School, concentrating in medieval Jewish history and the Ferkauf School of Psychology/RIETS certificate program in mental health counseling. He served as a rabbinic intern at The Roslyn Synagogue this past year.


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