If God Wills Us

Benayah Yanai • 2008

how did the people attempting to enter the land of Israel sin, if at all? In search of a deeper meaning to the phrase “against God’s will”.

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The entire community raised their voices and shouted, and the people wept on that night. All the children of Israel complained against Moshe and Aharon, and the entire congregation said, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert. Why does the Lord bring us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and children will be as spoils. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?”. They said to each other, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!”. Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces before the entire congregation of the children of Israel. Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Yefunneh, who were among those who had scouted the land, tore their clothes. They spoke to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, saying, “The land we passed through to scout is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord desires us, He will bring us to this land and give it to us, a land flowing with milk and honey. But you shall not rebel against the Lord, and you will not fear the people of that land for they are [as] our bread. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them”. The entire congregation threatened to pelt them with stones, but the glory of the Lord appeared in the Tent of Meeting to all the children of Israel…

Moshe related all these words to the children of Israel, and the people mourned greatly. They arose early in the morning and ascended to the mountain top, saying, “We are ready to go up to the place of which the Lord spoke, for we have sinned”. Moshe said, “Why do you transgress the word of the Lord? It will not succeed. Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you, [so that] you will not be beaten by your enemies. For the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, and you will fall by the sword. For you have turned away from the Lord, and the Lord will not be with you. They defiantly ascended to the mountain top, but the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord and Moshe did not move from the camp. The Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived on the mountain came down and smote them and crushed them [pursuing them] until Hormah.  (Bamidar 14)

“Here are to be found the roots of faith as well as of disbelief”[1]. At times ascending the mountain top can be viewed a great Mitzvah, but other times we are told “Beware of ascending the mountain”. There are times in which we must make an effort and try are best and insist; other times we are called to let go, release, yield and desist.  The command we were previously given - to go out to war - becomes at once a transgression. The same situation, that just moments ago was an occurrence of Devine presence, is now an emptied void, “for the Lord is not among you”.

Early interpretations have understood that there was nothing imminently wrong with the ascension itself; rather it was the sin of the Meraglim that caused the Shechina, God’s presence, to abandon the camp of Israel, without which they could not continue and ascend the mountain anyway. Their disbelief in God and his ability to bequeath them the land caused a mutual disbelief on God’s part and the departure of the Shechina. Once his presence is lifted, the ascension itself becomes a form of rebellion against God’s will and is doomed to fail; once reality has changed certainly life cannot continue like any day before. Something has occurred, the earth and sky are not the same, we cannot continue as if nothing ever happened.

More so, this is not the right time to try and amend things either - God is simply not present - “even when you pray at length, I do not hear”.

The Natziv explains God’s reaction:

Although it is good to amend for the sin in the same manner (place) that the sin was preformed, but not in a place where the Tshuvah itself is also against the will of God. That kind of devotion, of Mesirut Nefesh, is not accepted. It was wrong to think that if they go the extra mile - without being commanded to, that it will change something and God’s providence will suddenly be with them.

However, the matter can be understood differently: The will of God is not always so clear-cut and can change at any given moment. The Sages say “you must do anything the host tells you to do except: leave!”, and according to Reb Tzadok the commandment to refrain from ascending the mountain was God’s angry response to their sin and thus interpreted as a commandment to “leave!”. But they choose to seek God’s presence even though he does not seek theirs. This disobedience is the Chutzpah, the impertinence that is prevalent during the time of Moshiach. They had the right idea only the timing was off. But one day it will be the right time and place for Chutzpah, one day humanity’s efforts will receive its deserved recognition, even when it does not directly express God’s will, even when it is not attentive and corresponding with the current reality. There are times when the Azut De Kedusha, righteous audacity - can undermine the veils of reality.

Reb Tzadok‘s reading leads us to questioning our everyday existence, since most of us do not receive clear revelations from above telling us exactly what God wills, which actions receive his favor and which will succeed, and we have no choice but to ask again and again where to draw the line between a positive effort, to overbearing and useless ‘harassment’? When does prayer become a prayer for the past, when can we make explicit demands in our prayer, and when is it too late, and the judgment has already been passed? When is it that words no longer work and it is a time not to pray? When faced with dire times and situations - where do we draw the line between overconfident declarations relying on God’s protection from any threat, and honest faith that always leaves an opening for the possibility of a miracle?

In any case, it is best in my opinion to experience God’s presence whenever possible and always pray. But what form of prayer, and what exactly to pray for? The only answer I can find to this is Be’ezrat Hashem…

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[1] Kuzari 1-77.

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