And Moses said to God… I pray, let your patience be great, as You yourself have affirmed, saying, 'Adonai is slow to anger and full of kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children, upon the third and fourth generations. I beg of you pardon the sin of this people according to the greatness of your lovingkindness, just as you forgave this people from Egypt until now. And God said, I have forgiven as you have spoken: Salachti kidvarecha”
Moses has sent twelve spies into the land of Canaan, to gather intelligence for the Israelites going there into battle. After they return from scouting out the Land of Israel, ten of them deliver a disheartening report on the seeming impossibility of the task, "The country that we scouted is one that devours its settlers" (Num13:32). Only Caleb and Joshua present a minority report, saying that the people should go up at once and possess the land, and that they are well able to overcome the inhabitants; but no one listens to them. God is angry and hurt, and threatens to destroy and disown the people, and begin the covenant obligation again with Moses. But Moses persuades God to continue the covenant with the Israelites, reminding God that they have been down this road before, with the episode of the golden calf. Somewhat appeased, God responds. “salachti kidvarecha - I have pardoned as you have asked.”.
It is a phrase we should know well, for it has entered our liturgy for the high holy days, reminding us to work towards forgiveness and to approach God asking for help to do so, expecting that God will forgive us once we have done the right things to make the situation better.
Moses' plea here to God includes a recounting of God's attributes which Moses learned at Sinai when he was hidden in the cleft of a rock and God passed by – again a story we read at the high holy days . God had told Moses to retell those thirteen attributes to the people, especially in times of distress. In the text from the book of Exodus, Moses learns that God is "compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children's children, upon the third and fourth generations" (Exodus 34:6-7). But here in Sh'lach L'cha, Moses reorders and edits the text. God's attributes become "slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and fourth generations" (Numbers 14:18). In so doing, Moses leaves out seven of God's attributes, including compassion, graciousness, and forgiving of sin. In addition, he begins with naming God as "slow to anger." Why does he do this?
Maimonides suggests it is because the sin of the people in Sh'lach L'cha is so much greater than the sin they had committed regarding the Golden Calf. “contrary to what we might believe, the sin of despair and of not trusting that God was with them, was so great – greater even than building an idol to worship - that God could not completely forgive the people. So Moses has to approach God differently, appealing to God's attribute of being "slow to anger" directly and immediately in his plea for God to have mercy on the people. And so when God says, "I have pardoned according to your word,” God means just that: - “I have pardoned in accordance with Moses' plea for delayed anger. " Not for complete erasure of the event.
Would God would have pardoned the people anyway, even without Moses' appeal for delayed anger? The text, which says salachti"-is of course the past tense of the verb to pardon"- as if God had already pardoned the people but is waiting for Moses' plea before publicising the pardon. In effect we could see this as a test of Moses' own faith in God, would he challenge God and demand that God act in accordance with the divine nature?
The lack of faith in God, the willingness to despair and to give in is mirrored by the people’s lack of faith in themselves. After exploring for forty days, the spies had returned with impressive reports of a land of great fertility, a land filled with fruit and good things, whose inhabitants were powerful. Unfortunately they inferred that to live in that land one would have to be impressive too –“We were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes”, they reported “and there is no place for us, little grasshoppers, in a land that demands stature and nobility. Better to stay in the wilderness living our quiet, secure lives as small grasshoppers than ever aspiring to reach greater things. “
In other words - "We saw ourselves as being nothing ... and that is how they perceived us."
Whether the lack of faith in God led to the lack of faith in themselves or vice versa is I think irrelevant. But what is true is that to build a relationship with God one needs to have a sense of self with which to relate to the divine being. Moses demonstrates this admirably – while he may be described in other places as a man who is extraordinarily humble and meek, a man who finds public speaking difficult and so on, he knows, as we would say in common parlance, who he is. He is not afraid to speak up when his values and principles are being trodden upon. His speech to God, as well as his refusal to become a new patriarch, all speak of a man who knows himself and what is important to him. From this sense of self, he is able to take God on in no uncertain terms.
It is a way of relating to God that I think we sometimes forget. And we are so often ourselves prey to low self esteem, or anxious about how others might see us, or worried about how well we might perform at something or how measurably successfully we may achieve that we spend our time more as grasshoppers in our own eyes than is helpful, and we no longer look around ourselves into the bigger context and see how close God really is.
After the spies returned it was only Caleb who said: “We can do it!” (Num. 13:30). He Joshua and Moses tried to reframe the report so that the people would be able to see themselves entering and living in the land. It was, as we know, not enough and the whole generation (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb) paid the price for their timidity and despair. Sometimes we may not really believe in a possibility ourselves, sometimes it looks risky and uncertain, but without our courage, hope and trust to go ahead and be part of God's people going into its future, nothing at all will happen.
The morning prayer we recite as we wake up, thanking God for our lives and a new day - ‘Modeh ani lefanecha, Melech chai v’kayam, she’he’chezarta bi nishmata b’hemla, rabbah emunatecha” says “I give thanks to you eternal and living sovereign, who has returned to me my soul and strengthened it, and whose faith in me is huge” – Every morning we remind ourselves and God that God believes in us, is giving us the strength to face the day. Now we just have to listen to ourselves and take it seriously.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild