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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Shlach Lecha

Hirsch At Your Table

God’s System of Justice

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary
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ועתה יגדל נא כוח ד' כאשר דברת לאמר. ד' ארך אפים ורב חסד נושא עוון ופשע ונקה לא ינקה פוקד עוון אבות על בנים על שלשים ועל רבעים. (Nm 14:17-18)
The spies return from their military and educational mission, but instead of bringing useful information for planning battle strategy and insights into the corrupt way of life that they will be replacing as God’s people, they bring evil and negative reports and discourage any attempt to enter the land. The people demonstrate against Moshe and threaten to return to Egypt. God wants to destroy the people but Moshe prevails on Him to forgive them. Moshe asks God to extend His great mercy unto the people, to express the love that He has shown from the time of the Exodus until now, and to implement His system of justice.

Moshe argues against God's intention to destroy the Jews as a result of their support for the spies' report. Moshe acknowledges that the sins that were committed deserve punishment. However, in his attempt to save the Jews from destruction, Moshe refers to that private session at Mount Sinai that he had with God in which God told/דברת Moshe some of His attributes. Those attributes are the tools by which God runs the world and educates men and nations. They were shared by God with Moshe in order to enable Moshe to fulfill his role as leader of the Jewish people. Moshe invokes those discussions as he tries to save the people.

The word דברת is from the root ד-ב-ר which means "to combine separate items into one." In terms of this verse, it means "to combine words into coherent speech" that appeals to the intellect.


What are those attributes? They include: being slow to anger/ארך אפים, showing unbounded love/חסד, and forgiving sin/נושא עוון.

The word ארך is from the root א-ר-ך "to extend and prolong," i.e. to control. The word אפים is from the root א-פ-ף "to pant" and inhale greedily, a characteristic of an angry person. The word חסד is from the root ח-ס-ד "to devote oneself." The word נושא is from the root נ-ש-א "to lift and to remove." The word עוון is from the root ע-ו-ה which means "to deviate from the proper way."


God runs the world through these attributes. But though the attributes are full of the language of controlling anger and forgiving sin, it certainly does not follow from this that God completely ignores sins and crimes and figuratively turns the other cheek. God does not exonerate/נקה any person who has sinned without that person actively repenting and correcting any evil consequences to his action.

The word נקה is from the root נ-ק-ה which means "to cleanse" and exempt.


Moshe reminds God of those rules that He taught Moshe and that He expected Moshe to use as leader of the Jewish people. By those same rules the people who accepted the ten spies’ report and rebelled against God should be forgiven and not be destroyed.

Hirsch, as is his style, comments on the enlarged letter Yod/יוד in the word יגדל/become great. The word יגדל is in the future tense, and Hirsch explains that Moshe is telling God that all of the great acts and power/כוח that He displayed in Egypt and in the desert will pale when compared to God’s exercise of wondrous control/ארך אפים and His display of love if and when He forgives the Jewish people.

The word יגדל is from the root ג-ד-ל which means "to increase and expand." The word כוחי is from the root כ-ו-ח which means "to strengthen" and exert power.


Hirsch speaks as the master educator in his explanation of פוקד עוון אבות/investing the crimes of parents, onto future generations. He believes that parents, acting as models, can influence, if not actually determine, the direction in life of their offspring. Children are the fruit of the tree of life of parents. At the same time, though, infants are born pure and innocent, and through generations they can mitigate the influence of sins committed by ancestors. God will wait three/שלשים and four/רבעים generations before determining the impact of those sins and the extent of punishments.

The word פוקד is from the root פ-ק-ד "to invest with purpose." In this verse it refers to meting out appropriate justice. The word אבות is from the root א-ב-ה "to submit to demands." Parents determine the demands in the family. The word שלשים is from the root ש-ל-ש "to measure by three." The word רבעים is from the root ר-ב-ע "to increase" referring here to the fourth generation.


God ultimately forgives the sin of those who listened to the spies, applying the rules of ארך אפים and חסד, but He also applies the rule of פוקד אבות and decides to allow a period of forty years for a new and unsoiled generation to arise and enter the land.


Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
Rabbi Matityahu Clark
Served in principal/director positions throughout North America. One of the founders of the Educator's Council of America, and former president of the Council for Jewish Education. Former Director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington.
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