Shelach | To Err Is Human
Updated: Apr 24
People make mistakes all the time. It’s part of what it means to be a human being. Interestingly, halacha – Torah law – deals extensively with what happens when mistakes are made, detailing the implications of those mistakes, and how one should proceed as a result. Because we have free choice and because we have limited insight, mistakes are inevitable. Sometimes things seem so clear to us and yet in the end we see we were wrong all along.
What is particularly interesting is that G-d gives us the space to make mistakes. One of the most amazing, divine gestures G-d made to us is the gift of free choice; the ability to choose between good and evil. The Rambam says that free choice is the foundation upon which everything else in Judaism rests. The Torah – a comprehensive system of G-d-given commandments and directives on how to lead our lives – is premised on the fact that we are living, breathing, dynamic human beings, able to choose right from wrong, and not automated, pre-programmed robots.
G-d did not impose Himself upon us and force us to live in a certain way. He guides us, directs us, shows us how to distinguish between the correct and incorrect path. He offers reward for the good deeds and punishment for the bad. But ultimately the decision to choose between them is placed squarely in our hands. To be a human being is to be genuinely free.
When the Rambam says that free choice is the foundation of everything, he is really telling us is that at the centre of our lives is the fact that we have to make these choices all the time. And the moment there is the option of choice, there is the option of making a mistake. Our Sages have a principle: b’derech she’adam rotzeh lei’lech molichin oto – “in the path a person wants to take, he is guided”. In other words, if a person wants to refine themselves and become elevated and holy, G-d will give them the guidance and strength to do so; by the same token, if a person wants to pursue a path of negativity and sin, then G-d lets them do that, too. G-d supports our decisions.
There is a remarkable example of this in the portion that we are going to be reading, please G-d, this Shabbat in shul – Parshat Shelach. The parsha takes place with the children of Israel standing at the edge of the land of Israel and about to enter. More than a year after having left Egypt, and a number of months after having stood at Mount Sinai where we received the Torah, the Jewish People were on the brink of the fulfilment of G-d’s divine promise: “I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession.”
And on the verge of this moment of triumph, what happens? They send in the spies. A group of twelve men – great leaders, royal princes of their tribes – go in to the land of Israel to bring back a report to the people. As is well known, ten of the spies come back with a report which is negative; they report that although the land is prosperous and beautiful and fertile, it is inhabited by fearsome tribes that make the land unconquerable. Two of the spies – Joshua and Caleb – return with a positive report, urging the Jewish People to have faith that G-d will enable them to conquer the land. The people accept the negative report of the ten spies and disaster strikes. They want to go back to Egypt. They cry that night, and then G-d reveals to them the error of their ways, decreeing as punishment that that generation would not enter the land of Israel. They would wander the desert for forty years and only the next generation would be worthy of entering the land of Israel.
The sin of the spies is regarded as one of our great historical calamities. According to tradition, it happened on the night of Tisha B’Av – the 9th of Av. The bad decisions that were made that night would set in motion a long-running sequence of disastrous events that would echo throughout Jewish history.
And yet it could have all been different. The question is, why did G-d allow the spy mission to take place? Why did Moses facilitate it? If G-d had promised them the land – that this was where they were going to end up, regardless – why did they need to find out whether the land was good, fortified, etc.? Given the problematic nature, and ultimately, calamitous consequences, of their request, why wasn’t it dismissed out of hand and the people simply led straight into the land of Israel in accordance with the original divine plan.
Furthermore, Moses was very much aware of the dangers of the mission. How do we know? Just before the spies went in, Moses gave a new name to his beloved disciple, Joshua. His original name was Hoshea, meaning “saved”, and this was changed to Yeshoshua, “He will save you”. Rashi, based on the Talmud, explains this to mean, “may Hashem save you from the evil counsel of the spies”. Moshe foresaw that trouble was coming, or at the very least, the enormous risks that such a spy mission would entail. It wasn’t as if he thought everything would turn out fine. He was so concerned that he even considered his disciple, Joshua, might be swayed by the negative reports of the other spies. So why did he agree to it?
Why did G-d, Himself, agree to it? We see later in the account of the spies recounted in the Book of Deuteronomy, that the request to send spies came from the people. And it was only after the people had put in this request that Hashem seemingly endorsed their decision, saying “Shelach lecha…” – “Send for yourselves…”.
Why did both G-d and Moshe allow the people to send the spies? Moshe suspected that this idea would end in disaster. G-d certainly knew that it would end in disaster. So why did they allow it?
The first part of the answer is quite obvious – free choice. If free choice is something real and meaningful, then whether the choice is the right one or the wrong one, it must be allowed to stand and be taken to its logical conclusions. If the Jewish People chose not to put their faith and trust in G-d – in the fact that He would help them conquer the land, and ensure what was necessary to happen, happened – then that choice had to stand. If they decided to spy out the land of Israel for themselves – to understand the nature of the land, the fortifications and the people that dwell there – then that was their decision. Even if it demonstrated a lack of faith in G-d.
And that’s what free choice is about. G-d says, in effect: “You want to proceed on that path? Go ahead.” This is the dramatic importance of free choice – G-d gives us the agency to forge our own moral path in life, even if that means making mistakes, and sometimes very serious mistakes, with devastating consequences. The generation of the spies never saw the land of Israel. They spent forty years wandering in the desert. It occurred on the night of Tisha B’Av which had implications for generations to come. The mistake was catastrophic. But free choice means you are free to make mistakes – and that you have to live with the consequences.
Rav Moshe Feinstein, one of our great rabbis of the twentieth century, approaches the question from a slightly different angle. He asks, why is it that the people lacked faith in G-d? These were the same people who had witnessed the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. They had seen the manna fall from heaven. They had heard G-d’s voice at Mount Sinai. They had seen all of this, and now, suddenly, on the verge of entering the land, and completing the final stage of their great journey to redemption, they start to doubt G-d? Granted, there were thirty one kings ruling the land of Israel with fearsome fortifications and a violent disposition. But surely they knew that if G-d had promised them they would conquer the land, He would deliver on that promise? In the same way He had sent ten plagues to break a major world power like ancient Egypt and the might of King Pharaoh’s army, surely G-d would be able to help them conquer a land with thirty one kings? Where did their lack of faith come from?
Rav Moshe Feinstein outlines a very important principle in human nature. All of the revelations they had been privy to had come too easily to them. It had all been handed to them on a plate. The ten plagues, the splitting of the sea – there was no struggle involved. They hadn’t worked it through themselves. And this is human nature – you have to work something through yourself, and struggle with it and really think about it deeply before it becomes a part of you.
The faith of the Jewish People at that time was very superficial; it was limited to the faith that whatever G-d had done in the past, he had done. But there was no faith he could/would do any more. And that’s why they kept on testing G-d in the desert. Of course, they were being tested by G-d. But in their minds, they were testing G-d. As if to say, “well G-d, are you able to do this? Are you able to do that?” Their faith was superficial and shallow because it wasn’t something they’d worked through and struggled with; it wasn’t something that had been ingrained into their psyche, integrated into their personalities, seared into their souls.
Unfortunately, the only way to deepen their faith was to learn it the hard way. And the only way to learn something the hard way is through a mistake. G-d had therefore given them the space to make the mistake. He said, “Shelach lecha” – send your spies, come back with negative reports. Make the mistake of not going into the land. And then from that mistake your will be deepened. And that’s what happened. Immediately after G-d told them they were being punished for not having the faith to enter the land, they started to cry. They realised that they had made a terrible error, but it was too late. They had to go through the pain and process of learning – wandering forty years in the desert, most of which was spent delving into Torah, integrating divine wisdom, building faith.
In a way, to have gone straight into the land of Israel a year after the exodus from Egypt may have been rushing things. To us it seems the perfect plan was for them just to walk in. But Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that if they had entered Israel at that point it would have been at a very superficial level of faith. They had to be given the space to make the choice, to make the mistake; to live by the consequences of the mistake, and to accept the punishment; to grow and understand through this process so that through time, contemplation and the pain of experience, their faith would be deepened.
This, in a sense, is what life is about. We have to go through challenges and difficulties and complex experiences and in the process of doing so, we deepen our relationship with G-d, and our faith in Him becomes part of who we are, and not something which is superficial. And it is through the free choice that G-d gives us, and through making mistakes, that we are able to then rebuild and reinforce and deepen who we are.
This is based on a passage in the Talmud in Tractate Megilla on page 6b, where it records the following statement of Rabbi Yitzchak: “If a person tells you, ‘I’ve worked hard but did not find, don’t believe him; if he says, ‘I’ve not worked hard but found, don’t believe him; but if he says ‘I’ve worked hard and found, believe him”. In the context of our discussion, what this is saying is, a person who says they didn’t put any effort into building their faith and into their Torah learning and Torah living and yet found great faith and clarity and inspiration and direction – don’t believe such a person. On the other hand, if a person says they have put in the effort; they have toiled, struggled, studied, delved, and built a real relationship with G-d as a result – then you can believe them. Actually, the Talmud says it’s a guarantee – if someone tells you they’ve worked hard but have not succeeded, don’t believe him.
So we see that the effort and the “finding” are two sides of the same coin. You have to work for something in order for it to become part of who you are – that is how you integrate it. This principle relates to everything – the more effort we put towards something, the deeper we will find our relationship with that thing. It certainly applies to inter-personal relationships. Rav Eliyahu Dessler, another one of our great thinkers of the twentieth century, is famous for demonstrating that the conventional wisdom about love is incorrect. It’s not the more you love someone, the more you will give to them. It’s the other way around. The more you give to a person the more you will love them. The more effort you invest in a relationship – in a marriage, in your children, in a friendship – the more you will grow attached. Effort is what produces that deep attachment.
This of course applies to our relationship with Hashem – which is why the Jewish People, whose faith had up until then been handed to them on a plate, were not ready to go into the land. They had not yet gone through the struggle.
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, the great Mir Rosh Yeshiva, cites the idea that according to Talmudic tradition a simple hand maiden present at the splitting of the Sea of Reeds had a higher level of revelation of prophecy than the greatest of prophets in generations to come. But what became of this mass of people who witnessed split seas and great plagues and the Voice of G-d? They ended up wandering the desert, and didn’t achieve true greatness until it could be integrated.
The human being has to put in the effort and that’s partly the difficulty we face in the world today, because modern culture is very much based on instant gratification. It’s a consumerist culture whose desires have to be satisfied immediately. Effort and hard work are necessary for everything – earning a living; building relationships; learning Torah and fulfilling the mitzvot. And if people expect things to come too easily, and pursue the path of least resistance, then they are going to come up short in life. If a person feels that building a marriage, raising children, earning a living, etc. can be done without hard work then that is going to lead to a superficial connection to all of these things, and a superficial person. It is only through the delving and the struggle and the effort that is poured into something that we find the ultimate good that comes from it.
The concluding Mishnah of the fifth and final chapter of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) states, Lefum Tzaara Agra – “according to the pain is the reward”. On this, Rav Ovadia Mibartenura, one of the classic commentators on the Mishnah, says that in accordance with the amount of effort that a person puts into the study of Torah and the performance of the mitzvot, will be the reward.
There are two implications here. The first is that G-d rewards effort – the greater the effort and difficulty involved in doing a mitzvah, the greater will be G-d’s reward. It’s not just an outcome-based reward.
The second, and possibly even deeper, message of this Mishnah is that which we have been saying – that without that effort that is put into something there can be no reward. Without the effort the effort that is put into studying Torah and fulfilling the commandments – into doing good deeds and living life productively – there is no deep connection or integration with these things.
That deep connection and integration can only come from exercising and struggling with free choice as independent beings. And that takes time and tremendous will and effort. G-d gives us the space to choose, to make mistakes, to learn from the mistakes.
The Mishnah immediately preceding the above-mentioned statement from Pirkei Avot provides a broader context to this idea. It states, Hafoch ba vehafoch ba dekula bah – “Turn [the Torah] over and over for everything is in it…”; uvah techezei – “…look deeply into it”; vesiv uvaalei vah – “…grow old and grey over it”; ominah la tazua – “…and do not depart from it”; she’ein lecha mida tova heimena – “for you have no better portion that it”.
“Turn it over and over… look deeply into it… grow old and grey over it… do not depart from it…” The message is clear: Torah requires time and toil and deep application in order for its teachings to be integrated.
This is what the people needed in the desert. More time. Greater effort. It was all too much of a rush. They left Egypt, saw amazing miracles, heard G-d speak at Mount Sinai, and made mistakes because it was superficial. They needed time to integrate and to absorb what had they had been told. They needed time to reflect on what they had witnessed. So G-d had to give them the space to choose, and not block their request to spy out the land. He gave them the space to make their mistakes and face the consequences of those mistakes. But through those mistakes – grave though they were – and through those consequences – serious though they may have been – and through forty long years of hardship in the desert – they absorbed these deep truths and made their faith a part of who they were.
And that’s really our own journey through life. As the mishna says – turn it over and over, look deeply into it, grow old and grey over it, don’t depart from it. For there is nothing better than it. And then in accordance with the effort will be the reward. Growth and learning in life comes about through a step-by-step struggle – making mistakes, living with consequences, taking responsibility for our free choice decisions. And then learning from our mistakes. In time, through effort, we will become deeper, more profound people – more deeply and more profoundly connected to G-d, His Torah, the people around us, and all of the good things in life.