“A day for a year, a day for a year” – Bamidbar 14:34
One of most tragic events in the history of our people was the sin of the miraglim (spies). When we left Mitzrayim we were exalted and untouchable, feared by all the nations, respected by the world. Forty-nine days later we gathered at the foot of Har Sinai to accept the Torah. The plan was for the Chosen People to then march right into Eretz Yisrael. Had the events transpired as planned, the conquest would have taken root so deeply that we never would have been thrown out.
But all of this was to change. The course of our nation’s history, as well as that of humanity’s, was altered by the report of the spies. “The land of Israel is occupied by giants. There are powerful nations living in fortified cities.” In the minds of the spies, we would have been slaughtered wholesale, man, woman and child. So, to turn the nation against the idea, they brought back fruit to show that just as the produce of the land is gigantic so too are the people. The implication was simple – if we attack, we will be lost.
Their plot succeeded. The people cried out “let us go back to Mitzrayim. And because of this they were decreed to wander in the desert for forty years. A day for a year, a day for a year” (Bamidbar 14:34).
It is clear that this generation wasn’t allowed to enter the land of Israel because of their lack of trust in HASHEM.
The only problem is that this isn’t correct. The Dos Zakainim quotes a midrash that says that when the Jews first left Mitzrayim Hashem said, “If I take them directly into the land, each man will be busy – this one with his vineyard, this one with his field…. They won’t have time to study the Torah. Better, I should lead them into the desert. They will spend forty years eating manna and drinking water from the rock. That way, the Torah will have a chance to settle within them.”
The midrash is saying that the reason they had to wait forty years wasn’t a punishment. It was for their good. How do we understand that in light of the fact that it we are told here that it was a punishment for their lack of bitachon.
The answer to this can best be understood with an example.
Looking for a Scapegoat
Niron, the general, was sent by Rome to destroy the Temple. He knew that Hashem protects his people, and he was afraid to attack. To determine whether he would be victorious, he used divination. First he shot an arrow toward Jerusalem, and it flew straight. Then he shot arrows in every other direction, and in mid-flight all the arrows turned toward Jerusalem. Next, he stopped a young child and asked, “What did you learn in school today?” The boy quoted the verse, “And I will give the revenge against Edom into the hands of my people.” Niron said to himself, “Hashem wishes to destroy his Temple, and He wants to wipe His hands on me.” Instead of attacking, he ran away and converted. From his lineage came Rebbe Meir (Gittin 56a).
What happened here was that Niron saw the truth. He understood that Hashem wanted the Beis HaMikdash to be destroyed, and He was looking for someone to be the fall guy. That person would be allowed to burn the Temple, which would accomplish Hashem’s will, but then he would be punished for the act because he chose to do it. Niron was wise enough to recognize the handwriting on the wall, and decided not to be a pawn.
This seems to be the answer to the midrash. Hashem wanted the Jews to learn Torah without distraction. For that to occur, they had to live separated and alone – in the desert. And that was a problem. “How can I take my people out of bondage and then leave them to wander in the desert without a home? I promised Abraham I would take them to a bountiful land.”
And so, if it could be, Hashem wanted them to spend the forty years in the desert, but couldn’t decree it. He was, in sense, looking for an excuse. Once the spies brought their false report and the people accepted it, Hashem had something to justify their not being taken straight to Israel. In reality, there were two layers to the decree – the reason and the cause. The reason Hashem wanted them to spend forty years in the desert was that it was good for them. The cause that made it come about was a punishment for the sin of the spies.