Renewal after the Sin of Golden Calf
In this article, I will recount a chapter of Israel’s history in the wilderness.
Following the sin of the Golden Calf, as a result of which God said to Moshe: “Now do not try to stop Me when I unleash my wrath against them to destroy them; I will then make you into a great nation” (Exodus 32:10), Moshe stood in prayer until God responded, eradicating the decree of annihilation. In spite of this, Am Yisrael (the Jewish nation), and its connection to God, still required mending. This process was complex, including severe punishment of the sinners, writing the Tablets anew, the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the arrangement of the camp of Israel around it. Only afterwards was Am Yisarel worthy to have the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) dwell amongst them.
A new leaf was turned. Israel received marching orders for its journeys through the desert, with God’s cloud designed to show them the way. As an expression of this new beginning, the section of the Torah describing it is demarcated on both sides by an inverted Hebrew letter, Nun, implying the start of a new journey, devoid of the previous, weighty transgressions (Shabbat 116a).
At the time the Shekhinah descended upon the Mishkan inside the camp of Israel, no one doubted the realization of the prophecies. The plan was for Israel to enter the Land that same year, with Moshe Rabbeinu leading the conquering of the land, and its division into tribes. This was destined to be the world’s complete redemption, since we have a tradition that our enemies have no power over the handiwork of Moshe (Sotah 9a); had he conquered the Land and built the Holy Temple, no further exile would have transpired, and the Holy Temple would have remained forever.
All at once, the cloud of God began facing the direction of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), theKohanim (priests) sounded the trumpets, and the people began marching to the Land, in accordance with their tribal divisions. The people walked quickly for three days, as God desired to bring them to Eretz Yisrael immediately (see, Rashi, Numbers 10:33).
The Complaints and the Death of the Seventy Elders
In spite of this, some of the people began complaining that the trip was too difficult, as it is written: “The people began to complain, and it was evil in God’s ears” (Numbers 11:1). Our Sages said: The Hebrew word for ‘the people’, ha’am, is used only in reference to the wicked (Sifrei). And when the tzaddikim (the righteous people) failed to rise up and silence them, subsequently: “When God heard it, He displayed His anger, and God’s fire flared out, consuming the edge of the camp.” Our Sages said that the word for ‘edge’ or ‘extreme’ in Hebrew, katzeh, implies both ‘those untouchable because of their baseness’, and also, ‘the most distinguished and prominent among them’ (Sifrei). The latter were those seventy elders who acted irreverently while the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, continuing to eat and drink even as they observed the Divine revelation. At that moment, they were on the verge of being judged withmidat ha’din (the attribute of strict justice), but God did not want to combine grief with the joy ofMatan Torah, and postponed their fate. Now, when they stood by silently, failing to condemn the complainers, they were punished (see, Tanchuma 16; Rashi, Numbers 11:16). This was the first crack in the wall of emunah (faith) built anew at the time of the construction of the Mishkan.
Cracks in the Wall of Faith
Had the distinguished people taken responsibility for their community, condemning the complainers, the crack would have been sealed. However, they remained silent, and consequently, the asafsuf (mixed multitude) among Israel, also began to complain – true, not about the difficulties of the trip to Israel, but rather, about the menu. All of a sudden, the memories of Egypt and the sweetness of the exile flooded back to them – the fish, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic, they ate for free! And so, another split was created.
And when the tzaddikim failed to rebuke the asafsuf, more people joined in the complaining: “And the Israelites once again began to weep; ‘Who’s going to give us some meat to eat…’ – and this, despite God having given Israel the manna, which had an especially fine and delicate taste to it. Thus, an additional split was created.
And yet, the tzaddikim still could have stood up and condemned the ungrateful weepers. But when they failed to halt the spiritual plague, more complaints began to accumulate. “Moshe heard the people weeping with their families near the entrances of their tents”. Our Sages said that their grievances were in regards to the new restrictions on forbidden relations and laws of modesty, that some found difficult to accept (Yoma 75a). When emunah is strong in the heart, people strive to overcome their yetzer (impulse). But when chaos broke out with complaints about the food, the yetzer was aroused, and people began complaining about the severity of the prohibitions, hoping that through public pressure, they would be annulled.
At that point in time, no one ever imagined the nation was in jeopardy. Everyone still believed that God would save them, and bring them into the Promised Land, because, after all, the Mishkanwas in their midst, and Moshe Rabbeinu was their leader. In spite of everything, the complaints were not aimed directly against the prophecy of redemption, rather, only about personal issues – sort of like employees who wish to improve their work conditions, but on the other hand, don’t want to destroy the factory.
However, in his profound wisdom, Moshe Rabbeinu realized the grave danger in these complaints, which indicated a fracture in emunah. And most seriously, these cracks spread to thetzaddikim – the fact being that not one of them came to his assistance to quell the complaints, to point out all the kindness God had done for Israel, and to condemn the ingratitude. Moshe realized that in such a situation, despite the Mishkan and the Shekhinah dwelling amongst them, in times of peril, the cracks would widen, the people’s emunah would collapse, and the vision of redemption would be over. Besides, the entire idea of Eretz Yisrael is that the nation does not need to rely on miracles, but assumes full responsibility for tikun olam b’Malchut Sha-dai (to perfect the world in Kingdom of God).
At that moment, Moshe Rabbeinu asked God to remove the burden of the people from his shoulders, because if matters carried on in this fashion, it would be impossible to continue ascending on the path to the Holy Land. God heeded his request, and ordered him to gather seventy men from the elders of Israel, in order to help him carry the burden of the nation. Apparently, it seemed the elders would be able to repair the fractures. However, Eldad and Medad, who, owing to their great modesty, did not join the elders but remained in the camp, began to prophesize: “Moshe is dead, and Yehoshua will take Israel into the Land” (Sifrei,Rashi, Numbers 11:28).
Eldad and Medad realized the danger, warning that if the situation continues, Moshe Rabbeinu would die. Many people probably chose to ignore their prophecy. How could Moshe – the Man of God – die, and not accomplish the grand vision?! Conceivably, some might have even considered it to be good news – now they would enter the Land, without the strict leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu. This also was the result of the ‘breach in the fence’ caused by the ungrateful complainers and public dissenters.
The seventy elders stood opposite the other two, Eldad and Medad. Would the seventy elders, who were appointed to assist Moshe, be able to stem the tide? Or perhaps the other two were right, and even the selection of seventy elders could not prevent the disaster?
Internal Family Matters
And then, unexpectedly – from within his own family – an accusation arose against Moshe Rabbeinu. Miriam and Aaron, Moshe’s loving siblings, failed to recognize his magnitude, and the enormity of his mission. They failed to realize that from the onset of Matan Torah, Moshe’s life was dedicated to Torah and Israel, and from then on, he was married, so to speak, to Knesset Yisrael. Therefore, despite the great importance of his wife Tzipporah, he was unable be with her anymore. This possibly was the most serious fracture of all, because if even Moshe Rabbeinu’s closest relatives failed to understand the extent of his mission, how could one expect that, in the event of a horrific and awesome ordeal, the seventy elders would be able to execute their duties, and the public at large would remain steadfast in their faith?
The Difficult Test
These fractures trigger complications and ordeals. Individuals from the community arose, demanding spies be sent to search out the Land. The seventy elders failed to confront them with a firm declaration to believe in God and His servant Moshe, but instead, remained silent. Seeing this, Moshe Rabbeinu granted the people’s request, and sent distinguished and righteous men to search out the Land.
However, given that the spies did not depart on their journey with complete faith, upon seeing all the powerful people residing serenely in the land, they began to fear, and even doubted whether Israel had the moral right to conquer and dispossess these seven nations from their land (see,Baba Batra 15a). And thus, they returned to the people of Israel, and said: We are unable to defeat the people living in the land, because they are stronger than us (in Hebrew, the word for uscan also be understood as Him, or God). This is when Israel began to have doubts in their hearts, that perhaps they were also morally unfit to conquer and liberate the land from foreign nations.
At that point in time, the nation was in need all of its resources. The question was no longer confined to narrow complaints about the hardships of the journey, the food, or the prohibitions of personal relationships that were difficult to keep. The question that stood before them now was penetrating and clear: Would they have faith in God, who took them out of the bondage of Egypt, gave them the Torah, and assigned them the supreme moral role of revealing the Shekhinah, and perfecting the world in the Kingdom of God, or turn their backs on the historic mission?
The fractures created by the small complaints of the mitlonenim (the complainers) and all the others who heard and remained silent, failing to protest because, to a certain extent, theythemselves identified with the complaints – those fractures began to widen. In spite of everything, some tried to regain their strength by listening to Yehoshua and Calev, to see if there was still hope. They realized that if they turned their backs on the Divine order this time, they would pay with their lives. But they failed. Seeing that even the leaders failed to heed the call of Yehoshua and Calev, they came to the conclusion that apparently, they really weren’t up to the task. The collapse was total. They failed to believe in God, who had promised to stand by their side. The fear of the seven powerful nations immobilized them, bar none. “And the entire congregation lifted up their voice, and cried. That night, the people wept. And all the children of Israel murmured against Moshe and Aaron. The entire community said to them: We wish we had died in Egypt! We should have died in this desert!”
The Punishment and the Tikun
And so it was. Everyone died in the desert – together with Moshe Rabbeinu, the faithful shepherd, may he rest in peace. Only forty years later, Yehoshua bin Nun, Moshe Rabbeinu’s faithful disciple, brought the sons into the Land of Israel. However, “the countenance of Moshe was like that of the sun; the countenance of Yehoshua was like that of the moon” [Yehoshua’s glory was inferior to that of Moshe] (Baba Batra 75a). Consequently, the entry into the Land was weak, and many years passed before we were able to build the Holy Temple in Jerusalem – and even that, slipped from our hands. ‘We were exiled from our land, and driven far away from our soil’.
Our Sages said: The night on which the people accepted the accusation of the Meraglim (Spies) and cried, was Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av). “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: You have wept without cause, therefore I will set [this day] aside for a weeping throughout the generations to come” (Ta’anit 29a).
Today, when we are in the midst of an amazing return to Zion, as prophesized by the Prophets of Israel, we must strengthen ourselves, both morally and in our deeds, to stand against all accusations and complaints – both internal and external – and face the challenge of tikun Cheit ha’Meraglim (rectifying the Sin of the Spies), and tikun olam (perfection of the world).