Unconditional Commitment to God’s Covenant
Adapted by Immanuel Meyer
Translated by Kaeren Fish
“And if an individual person sins through ignorance, then he shall bring a she-goat of the first year for a sin offering. And the Kohen shall make atonement for the person who sins ignorantly, when he sins by ignorance before the Lord, to make atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him….But a person who acts presumptuously (be-yad rama), whether he is born in the land or a stranger, that person dishonors the Lord, and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. For he has despised the word of the Lord, and has violated His commandment; that soul shall utterly be cut off, his iniquity shall be upon him.” (Bamidbar 15:27-31)
In these verses the Torah describes two opposite poles on the continuum of sinners. There is the person who sins out of ignorance: he must bring a sin offering. At the other extreme is the person who sins “presumptuously,” deliberately, to violate God’s command out of ideological conviction; he is punished with karet. But what about the “in between” situations – the very many instances in which a person sins deliberately but not presumptuously, motivated by desires and wants rather than by obstinate protest against the Torah and its commandments?
In the world of halakhic concepts, likewise, the categories most familiar to us are the two extremes – the person who sins “be-shogeg” (unintentionally) and one who does so deliberately (be-mezid). The former must bring a sin offering; the latter is put to death by the court – but there are very specific conditions that must be met in order for him to meet this definition: there must be witnesses and warning; the sinner must respond to this warning by asserting that “it is precisely for that reason that I am doing X,” and must immediately – while making his statement – carry out the violation (Rambam, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 12:2).
Why is it necessary that the transgression be committed in such close proximity to the warning? Could anyone suggest that if the warning and the deed were separated by a short time, the sinner would be acting in any way less intentionally? “While making the statement” means that there is only a very short window of time – a second, perhaps, or a second and a half – in which the sinner must act in order to fall into the category of sinning “deliberately.” But could anyone imagine that if he acted a few seconds later, it would be because he had forgotten the warning? Seemingly, the definition of one who sins “be-mezid” approaches the Torah’s definition of one who acts “presumptuously,” as evidenced by the fact that to meet the criteria of this category he must say, “It is for that reason that I sin.” This testifies to acknowledgement of a Commander and of a commandment, as well as a principled, ideological decision to reject and transgress them. Once again, we are left without any direct attention to the person who transgresses for the sake of his personal pleasure.
Immediately after the verses cited above, we read about an individual who was, indeed, sentenced to death “at the hand of the court,” as it were:
“And while Bnei Yisrael were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Shabbat day… And the Lord said to Moshe, The man shall be surely put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp. And all the congregation brought him outside the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died, as the Lord had commanded Moshe.” (15:32-36)
It should be pointed out that in the two sole instances in which the Torah records an actual death sentence carried out in the wilderness, the sinners in question acted deliberately and presumptuously. The first is the blasphemer (Vayikra 24), whose act obviously has no meaning other than to anger God (there is no personal benefit to be derived); the second is the gatherer of wood in our parasha. The latter chooses a commandment that expresses the covenant between God and His people, and proceeds to transgress it, openly and demonstratively. What is it that causes the gatherer of wood to do so at this point in time?
This account is closely followed by the next one – the story of Korach. There, too, we read the rebellious words of Datan and Aviram:
“And Moshe sent to call Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, but they said, We will not come up; is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you also make yourself a prince over us? Moreover, you have no brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards; will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up!” (16:12-14)
This is a very clear expression of the same “presumptuous” ideology that is championed by the gatherer of wood in our parasha, and the two accounts seem to share something very fundamental. Perhaps the gatherer of wood is the same “On, son of Pelet” who is mentioned at the beginning of parashat Korach and then disappears from the scene – possibly because he is put to death as the gatherer. This possibility requires a slight reordering of the verses, but the general idea remains the same: the text describes the steady development of a coalition of flagrant rebels, who declare publicly that their intention is to transgress God’s command. Once again we must ask, why right now?
Our quest for the answer may lead us to the preceding account – the story of the spies, and the decree of forty years in the wilderness. We are prompted to examine the fundamental connection between two important events in ancient Jewish history: the receiving of the Torah, and the inheritance (“receiving”) of Eretz Yisrael. There are many parallels between the sin of the golden calf and the sin of the spies (Moshe ascends Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights, and returns with the Tablets; the spies ascend to the Land for forty days and forty nights and return with fruits of the land; and many more). What is the basis of the connection between these two events?
A scholarly giant of the last generation, Rav Shakh z”l, once spoke at the Yad Eliyahu stadium about how the Torah was given to Am Yisrael in the wilderness, before they entered the land, because the Torah is essentially more important to the nation than is the land. In his view, the chronological precedence also reflects qualitative importance. Without Torah our life is not a life at all, while without the land we have managed to survive.
His words were widely broadcast, and caused an uproar throughout the country – to my mind, rightfully so. Chronological precedence does not necessarily imply greater importance; rather, it is a matter of interdependence and conditioning: the goal is to enter the land and to fulfill the Divine vision of building it up. The giving of the Torah prior to the entry into the land is meant to teach us about our rights to this land: Eretz Yisrael is not a “homeland” in the sense of physical origin; rather, it is the land promised to our forefathers, our “land of destiny” – with all the attendant ramifications. A nation is entitled to its homeland by virtue of the fact that that is its natural setting and the cradle of its culture. Am Yisrael, in contrast, became a nation in Egypt, and the promise of Eretz Yisrael is made on the basis of the Divine covenant and destiny. In short, we are entitled to the land not by virtue of our past, but rather on the strength of our future. One may also understand that the Covenant between the Parts was forged with Avraham at the age of seventy, while he was still in Charan; only after the forging of that covenant could he journey to Eretz Yisrael.
The Torah is full of this idea that the entry into the Land is dependent on the commandments. Thus we see (as I learned many years ago from my teacher, Rav Yoel bin Nun) that the first Tablet of the Ten Commandments opens with the command, “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, from the house of bondage” (Shemot 20:2), and concludes with the words, “in order that your days may be lengthened upon the land which the Lord your God gives to you” (20:11). In other words, “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of Egypt – in order that your days may be lengthened upon the Land of Israel,” with the content in between being acceptance of the commandments.
In Sefer Devarim, too, the inheritance of the land is bound up with observance of the commandments:
“And you shall observe all the commandment which I command you this day, that you may be strong, and go in and possess the land, into which you go to possess it, and that you may prolong your days in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them and to their seed, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Devarim 11:8-9)
Further on, the verses describe the goodness of the land, and immediately afterwards, in the unit which is recited as the second paragraph of the Shema, we find:
“In order that your days may be multiplied and the days of your children, in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give them…” (11:21)
This is a very central idea in the Torah. However, there is another side to the coin. If Eretz Yisrael is a good piece of land, an “inheritance of fields and vineyards,” in the words of Datan and Aviram, or what we would call “real estate,” whose inheritance depends on our acceptance of the commandments, then the inverse equation must also apply: seemingly, if we do not receive the land, then we are exempt from accepting the commandments! This is the ideology that the gatherer of wood proclaims following the decree of the forty years, and it is this same ideology that Datan and Aviram wish to publicize: if we are not going to be entering the land, to eat of its fruits and be satiated by its goodness, then why should we observe the commandments? “Moreover, you have not brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey” – if God is not going to fulfill His part of the covenant and His promise to the forefathers, then we, too, are exempt from our own part in the deal.
This approach is familiar to us from a famous midrash about the elders in Babylonian exile who come and sit before the prophet Yechezkel (Yechezkel 20:1) and ask him, “Yechezkel, a slave who has been sold by his master – is he not considered as having left his former master’s domain? Surely the relationship is dissolved!” And when Yechezkel agrees that the law is in accordance with their logic, they respond: “Since God has sold us into the hands of the nations, we are no longer in His domain!” (Sifri, Shelach 115). Yechezkel responds, in that chapter, using specifically the account of the generation of the wilderness, and the commandment of Shabbat, to emphasize the opposite conclusion:
“And that which comes into your mind shall never come about, that you say, ‘We will be like the nations, like the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone.’ As I live, says the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with anger poured out, I will be King over you, and I will bring you out from the peoples and will gather you out of the countries in which you are scattered, with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm, and with anger poured out. And I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there will remonstrate with you face to face. As I remonstrated with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so will I remonstrate with you, says the Lord God.” (Yechezkel 20:32-36)
God then goes on to declare, clearly and unequivocally:
“And I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the discipline of the covenant, and I will purge out from among you the rebels, and them that transgress against Me; I will bring them out of the country where they sojourn, and they shall not enter into the land of Israel, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” (vv. 37-38)
Yechezkel speaks here of the nation being brought out into the wilderness and the renewal of the covenant, without entry into the land – and nevertheless the nation is required to uphold the covenant.
This raises the obvious question of what Yechezkel means by this answer. If this is the case, what is the true significance of the covenant?
As a counterweight to the gatherer of wood we might point to the figure of Rabbi Akiva, who seems to be an extreme expression of the opposite ideology. Even when he is taken to his death and his flesh is torn with iron combs, he recites the Shema:
“And he accepted upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. His disciples said to him, ‘Our master – even to this degree?’ He answered them, ‘All my life I was troubled by this verse – “[You shall love the Lord your God…] with all your soul,” meaning, “even if He takes your soul.” I would say, When will I have the opportunity to fulfill this? Now that the opportunity has arisen – shall I not fulfill it?!’” (Berakhot 61b)
The Gemara goes on to describe how Rabbi Akiva “drew out the word ‘echad’ (One), until his soul departed with the word ‘echad’” (ibid.). Rabbi Akiva might have uttered the word ‘echad’ more quickly and then managed to recite the rest of the Shema. But what was important to him was the self-sacrifice embodied in the opening declaration – the acceptance of the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, independent of any consideration of “This is Torah and this is its reward?!” as raised by the angels in the continuation of the same account in the Gemara. Rabbi Akiva embodies absolute commitment with no expectation of reward or reciprocity. This is the “acceptance of the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven” that precedes the “acceptance of the yoke of the commandments.” Total subjugation, even when it yields no positive result or benefit.
And who, if not Rabbi Akiva, could speak of a “slave who is sold by his master”? Who, if not Rabbi Akiva’s generation – the generation that suffered Hadrian’s decrees and persecution; the generation that saw the slaughter of Bar Kokhba and his fellow rebels and the bloodbath at Beitar – could cry out, “Surely the relationship is dissolved?!” Nevertheless, Rabbi Akiva teaches us the importance of accepting the yoke of Heaven, specifically from amidst “the wilderness of the nations,” with no entry into the land.
How is it that the Sages of the Mishna, specifically in their time – a time of destruction, persecution, and oppressive decrees – managed to compose such a seminal work that remains, to this day, at the center of the religious cultural Jewish world? Apparently, this is the lesson that the generation of the wilderness was supposed to have learned in its time: the ability to turn crisis and collapse into a situation of transition and creation, and specifically in response to the fact that the covenant provides no benefit, to build the next generation spiritually and to prepare it for the fulfillment of the covenant and its fruits.
Every generation is obligated to learn this lesson, including our own.
(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Shelach 5773 .)
 See Rav Medan's shiur on Lekh Lekha for an explanation of this approach: http://etzion.org.il/en/berit-benei-ha-betarim-covenant-between-parts.