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Parashat Shelach

By Dan Cohen

(May 28, 2024) Parshat Shelach 2024 - Should punishments last forever?

How long should discipline last when you make a mistake? In childhood, your “time-outs” required counting to ten or sitting on the stairs for a long time.

Even now, bad behavior often means being sent to your room. Though, at your age, I’m not entirely sure that’s a punishment. But the MacGuffin is, once punishment is done, it's done for good.

The parsha, my bar mitzvah portion, relates the story of the spies who went to scout the land of Israel but returned with a negative report.  By the story's conclusion, the spies have turned the nation against Moshe and Hashem.

Moshe begs forgiveness, and Hashem agrees, though He announces that the nation will wander for 40 years in the desert. God clarifies that everyone over 20 will die in the desert.

That wasn’t the only punishment.

In Chapter 14, Verse 37, a line at the end of this episode says, “So the men who produced a bad report about the Land died (straightaway) in the plague, before Gd.”

Gd kills the spies quickly. This leads to a discussion among the sages about their eternal destiny.

They argue how long Gd will punish the spies and whether they will have eternal life in Olam Habah, The World to Come. Does their tragic error mean they are doomed in that moment or forever?

This is not just a question for the spies; it's one facing the entire nation and, by extension, us.

The Rebbe’s Chumash lays out competing arguments in the Mishnah in Sanhedrin 108a and disassembles the verse.

The Mishnah says that the bad report caused the spies' death AND exclusion from the afterlife.

The verse says they “died,” referring to their removal from this world. Then, the verse adds a second reference, “in a plague, before Gd.”  Rabbi Akiva says this means they were denied a share in the world to come.

Rabbi Akiva takes this two-part approach further. He analyzes a similar verse just prior (verse 35) to say the nation dies in the desert AND that Olam Habah will be denied to ALL of them as well.

Rabbi Eliezer disagrees. He says that since the generation stood at Mt. Sinai and made a covenant with Hashem, they would merit to live in the World to Come.

R. Eliezer adds that since the spies were also at Mt. Sinai and joined the covenant, they also merited Olam Habah regardless of their sin. Their covenant could never be dissolved.

So, in summary, R. Akiva says no one gets into Olam Habah, especially the spies. R. Eliezer says the whole generation does, even the spies.

Why is this relevant for us? In the Torah, Gd provides a model for relationships. Parental discipline and accountability between fellow men are among the more complex areas of human relations. Getting it right takes practice, and I can attest that I’ve made more than my fair share of mistakes.

Here are three lessons I take away from Rabbi Eliezer's hopeful analysis that punishment is not eternal.

First, he teaches that our Emunah goes a long way in our relationship with Hashem (our parent). We can stipulate the generation was doomed to die in the desert, and Gd killed the spies immediately. However, R. Eliezer would say that Gd hit a reset button and didn't punish them for eternity because they made a covenant with Him at Mt. Sinai. There is always room for mercy if we show commitment and our ability to change.

Second, the verses describe a two-step process for punishment: one that is immediate and one that is delayed. Gd is modeling how time can provide us with added perspective when we are angry.

Gd could have immediately decreed that He would punish the spies and the nation forever, but he didn't. Accordingly, making each of you sit and count on the steps wasn’t just for your benefit but also mine. Putting a pause between anger and punishment is a step worth considering.

Third, the sages who choose to judge the spies favorably say they were motivated to remain in the desert where they could serve Hashem without the distractions of everyday life. The spies issued a lousy report to avoid the mundane life of war and farming in the Holy Land.  They wished to bask in the Holiness of living the desert life under Hashem’s protection.

Allowing them to enjoy Olam Habah might be one small (or gigantic) accommodation to their religious fervor. From this, perhaps we learn to make accommodations for others when they err but act with our best interests at heart

These ideas from Rabbi Eliezer in the Mishnah are lovely alternatives to endless grudges, anger-driven decisions, or imposing harsh discipline on others.


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