The "Ma'apilim"

  • Rav Elchanan Samet

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


The "Ma'apilim"

By Rav Elchanan Samet


The story of the ma'apilim (the group who decided to proceed, alone and unauthorized, towards Eretz Yisrael after the episode of the spies) is divisible into three clear parts:

Verses 39-40: background to the story

Verses 41-43: Moshe's attempt to dissuade them

Verses 44-45: the act and its consequences.

We shall examine some exegetical insights into each of these three sections.


1. (39) "And Moshe spoke these words to all of Bnei Yisrael, and the nation mourned greatly."

At first glance, verse 39 seems unrelated to the story of the ma'apilim; it looks like the conclusion of God's words to Moshe (verses 26-35). It is the news of this Divine speech that causes the nation to mourn greatly. But if this was so, we would have to ask why verse 39 does not follow immediately after that speech, but rather is separated from it by verses 36-38, which deal with the punishment of the spies, who died immediately in a plague (except for Yehoshua and Kalev).

The answer to this question would seem to be that verse 39 is meant to introduce the act of the ma'apilim, providing its religious and psychological background. When Moshe notifies the nation of their severe punishment, they mourn greatly, and it is this mourning that gives rise to the readiness on the part of a certain group to act. According to this perception, the end of verse 39 should be joined to the beginning of verse 40:

"And the nation mourned greatly - And they got up early in the morning, and ascended to the top of the mountain…."

2. The beginning of verse 40 - "And they ascended to the top of the mountain…" - arouses our surprise. Both the continuation of the verse ("Behold, let us ascend") and Moshe's words in the next verse ("Do not ascend"), as well as the description of the next act ("And they were arrogant and ascended"), make it clear that in verse 40 they had not yet ascended!

It seems that by the words, "And they ascended to the top of the mountain," the Torah is describing the practical preparations that were underway towards the ascent. The expression "And they ascended" is used in order to indicate the determination behind this decision, and perhaps even the beginning of the move in that direction.


3. The words of the group that ascended to the top of the mountain require completion:

"Behold, we shall ascend to the place that God said […] for we have sinned."

What did God say? Rashi completes their words as follows:

"'Behold, we shall ascend to the place' - to Eretz Yisrael, 'that God said' - THAT HE WOULD GIVE TO US, to there we shall ascend.

'For we have sinned' - in saying (14:3), 'Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?'"

According to this interpretation, "that God said" means "that God promised."

Rashbam understand the verse differently:

"'To the place that God said' - AND COMMANDED US to go there, and to inherit the land; 'for we have sinned' - in believing the counsel of the spies."

What is common to both interpretations is that the words "for we have sinned" stand alone, as a confession of the nation as to their previous sin. This indeed seems to be the intention of the verse, both on the basis of the "ta'amim" (traditional cantillation points) and from the parallel verse in Sefer Devarim (1:41), where their words appear in a different order:

"We have sinned to God; we shall ascend and shall wage war, as all that God our God has commanded us…."

The difference between the two interpretations lies in the sin that they wish to repair by means of their ascent. Rashi's explanation would suggest that they wish to repair their REJECTION OF THE LAND, while Rashbam seems to understand their act as being meant to repair THEIR REFUSAL TO WAGE WAR AGAINST THE NATIONS OF THE LAND as they were commanded to do. From their emphasis that they are ascending to "THE PLACE," and from the lack of any reference to the nations to which they are ascending, the first interpretation seems more likely.


1. (41) "And Moshe said: Why now are you transgressing God's word; and it shall not succeed." To what word of God, which the ma'apilim are about to transgress, does Moshe refer?

R. Yosef Bekhor Shor understands the reference as follows: "For He decreed that you shall not enter the land, and you wish to enter it."

Chizkuni, however, interprets differently: "For He said (verse 25), 'Tomorrow, turn and take yourselves to the wilderness, on the way of the Sea of Reeds.'"

Both commentators refer to the same thing: the punishment that God meted out to Israel for their grave sin. But this punishment has two interdependent aspects: the decree that this generation will not enter the land entails God's command that they turn back to the wilderness again, for the long journey that will continue until the end of the generation.

However, Moshe's speech in Sefer Devarim would seem to present a different answer to our question:

(Devarim 1:42-43) "And God said to me: Say to them, Do not ascend and do not fight, for I am not among you, that you not be struck before your enemies. And I spoke to you, and you did not hear."

Moshe's words to the ma'apilim, then, were preceded by God's words to him, prohibiting the ascent and the planned war against the nations. Accordingly, Ramban comments on our verse:

"Moshe said: Why do you transgress God's word, for He commanded me that you should not ascend at all, that you not be struck down before your enemies. And so he says in Sefer Devarim, '…And you ventured to ascend to the mountain. And God said to me, Say to them: Do not ascend….'"

2. The main problem in the continuation of Moshe's speech is its repetition. Twice he warns the ma'apilim that the enemies will prevail over them (verses 42 & 43), and twice he tells them (in the same two verses) that God is not in their midst, or will not be with them. The order of these two utterances in verses 42 and 43 is reversed, creating a chiastic structure as follows:

"Do not ascend, for GOD IS NOT IN YOUR MIDST,

that you not be struck down before your enemies.

For the Amalekite and the Canaanite are there before you, and you shall fall by the sword,

for you have turned away from following God, AND GOD WILL NOT BE WITH YOU."

It seems that Moshe does indeed hint to two reasons for the expected defeat of the ma'apilim: the first is more tangible, while the second is religious and moral and therefore less tangible.

The tangible reason is the one described thereafter, in verse 44: "But the Ark of God's covenant, and Moshe, did not move from amidst the camp." Those who go out to war without approval to do so - whatever their reasons - will not be accompanied by the Ark in their fight, expressing the fact that "God is not in your midst." They are therefore exposed to natural circumstances, and are therefore in danger of being "struck down before your enemies."

But in this case the war in question is not a regular war that was not approved. The war is to be waged against the Amalekites and the Canaanites, who dwell at the southern entrance to the land and who struck such fear into the hearts of that generation. Had they heeded Yehoshua and Kalev (14:9, "And you - do not fear the nations of the land for they are our bread; their protection is gone from them AND GOD IS WITH US; do not fear them!"), then God would truly have been with them and they would have prevailed over the inhabitants of the land. But since they rebelled against God and were punished by not being able to enter the land, the Amalekites and Canaanites became an enemy that they could not conquer. This itself was part of the punishment meted out to that generation (14:28): "As you have spoken in My ears - so shall I do to you." This is already hinted to them in God's words:

(25) "And the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valley; tomorrow, turn ajourney towards the wildern, via the Sea of Reeds."

Moshe makes this hint more explicit when he tells the ma'apilim (43): "For the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, AND YOU SHALL FALL BY THE SWORD" - just as you cried that night (14:3): "And why is God bringing us to this land, TO FALL BY THE SWORD?"

The reason for their expected defeat by the sword is their previous sin: "For thus you turned from following God." Chizkuni explains:

"The verse is terse: 'For thus you turned' - therefore [you are being punished] measure for measure: "And God will not be with you" - God will not help you in your war against them."

From this perspective, it is not the absence of the Ark that determines the outcome, but rather the sin which causes God to abandon them in their battle, leaving them to the hand of their enemy. This is a "measure for measure" punishment for their refusal to present themselves in battle against them, as they had been commanded.

3. This explanation for the repetition in Moshe's words - i.e., that he is giving two reasons as to why the ma'apilim will fail in their war - brings us back to the various opinions as to which utterance of God Moshe refers to when he says, "Why now do you transgress God's word?" Ramban understands that this refers to the command forbidding them to go out to war - a command that is mentioned explicitly in this context in Sefer Devarim. This explicit command is not given as a reason, but its results are clear: the ma'apilim will not be accompanied by the Ark when they go out in defiance of God's command, and therefore they will be defeated by their enemies. This explanation fits the first part of Moshe's speech, and the verse in Sefer Devarim does in fact support this:





"DO NOT ASCEND and do not fight, FOR I AM NOT AMONG YOU,


But R. Yosef Bekhor-Shor and Chizkuni explain that the "word of God" referred to by Moshe is the punishment meted out to the nation for its great sin - a punishment that includes a hint (14:25) that from now onwards they will not have the strength to fight the Amalekites and the Canaanites, and they must turn back towards the wilderness via the Sea of Reeds. This explanation fits the second part of Moshe's words - which is clearly both linguistically and thematically related to that punishment, as we noted above.


The ma'apilim took no notice of Moshe's double warning. They ascended to the top of the mountain, even though God was not in their midst - "And the Ark of God's covenant, and Moshe, did not move from among the camp" - and they fell by the sword before the Amalekites and the Canaanites, who smote them all the way to a place that was named after this event - "Chorma," meaning destruction (Rashi). All this was exactly as they had been warned.

The most difficult exegetical problem raised by these verses concerns the significance of the word "va-ya'apilu" (the verb that defines its subjects as the ma'apilim). The root '-p-l appears eight times in the Torah as a noun - 'ofel' - meaning a hill-like place that is elevated and protected. But as a verb it appears only once, and that is here. What does it mean?

I shall list the various explanations offered here in a special order: from those who understand the word in a negative light, to those who regard it as a neutral term, and then those who give the word a positive meaning.

1. Onkelos translates "va-ya'apilu" to mean "and they acted wickedly." From where does he deduce this meaning? He undoubtedly relies here on the parallel text in Devarim 1:43:

"And you rebelled against God's word, AND YOU SINNED DELIBERATELY and ascended the mountain."

Does this translation have any etymological basis? According to a commentary on Onkelos, "Nefesh Ha-Ger," the translation here is based on the context.

2. Rashi's interpretation is not far removed from that of Onkelos:

"'Va-ya'apilu' - a term denoting hardness and strength."

The ma'apilim were hard-hearted; they acted brazenly and presumptuously against what they had been told by Moshe. This meaning is therefore equally in keeping with the parallel in Devarim - "And you were arrogant and ascended the mountain…."

3. Ibn Ezra traces the verb "va-ya'apilu" to the noun "ofel":

"'Va-ya'apilu' - from the same root as '…fort (ofel) and tower' (Yishayahu 32:14). It means - they ascended to the fort."

In other words, they ascended to the elevated and fortified place at the top of the mountain. This word therefore designates simply the exact destination of their ascent; it is value-neutral.

4. The accepted interpretation for the root '-p-l is "swollen and raised" (note by Tur-Sinai on the root '-p-l in the Ben Yehuda dictionary, p. 4616, note 2). The word therefore means "they went upwards" - an expression of climbing and ascent. This interpretation is not very different from that of Ibn Ezra, except that the verb here designates the nature of the act, not its destination.

5. Prof. Yehoshua Blau (Olam Ha-Tanakh, p. 91) writes:

"'Va-ya'apilu' - some explain this word in light of the Arabic: they gave up their souls to die (i.e., deliberately ignored the dangers involved).

Similarly, we find in the Ben-Yehuda dictionary, under '-p-l, that it means "to venture, to dare." This gives the word "va-ya'apilu" a positive connotation. A person's readiness to give up his life in order to perform an act that he believes should be performed is certainly a worthy trait - except, obviously, that even this trait is not good at all times and in all circumstances.


How does the Torah present the ma'apilim to us - as completely wicked people (like the spies, who died in a plague), or perhaps as righteous people who sinned?

There can be no doubt that they did sin in ascending the mountain. Moshe says to them, "Why do you TRANSGRESS THE WORD OF GOD" - and they pay him no heed. In Sefer Devarim, their guilt is spelled out very clearly: God commands Moshe to forbid them IN HIS NAME from ascending - "And I spoke to you AND YOU DID NOT HEAR, AND YOU REBELLED against God's word, AND YOU SINNED DELIBERATELY and ascended the mountain." We have already seen that some commentators regard the word "va-ya'apilu" in our parasha as a similar indication of their guilt (Onkelos, Rashi, Seforno).

But we cannot ignore the words of the ma'apilim - both in our parasha and in parashat Devarim - expressing regret and penitence:

(Parashat Shelach) (40) "Here we are; let us ascend to the place that God said,


(Parashat Devarim) (41) "WE SINNED TO GOD;

we shall ascend and we shall wage war, as all that God our God commanded us."

In our parasha, these words - and the readiness to ascend "to the place that God said" - are described as the conclusion arising from genuine regret on the part of the nation: "And the nation mourned greatly." All the components of true repentance are demonstrated here: regret for what was done in the past, a verbal confession, and a readiness to repair the sin by means of opposite actions, expressing the complete inner change that the sinner has undergone. In our specific case, the repentance is even accompanied by true readiness for self-sacrifice - "We shall ascend and we shall wage war, as all that God… commanded us."

If this is indeed true repentance, then we face a paradox: how can people who are full of such enthusiastic and profound repentance "transgress the word of God," rebelling against His command in their very act of repentance? Moshe already told them that in God's eyes their act is not desirable, and this is not the way to repent. They have even been warned that their deeds will not bring about repair, but rather will lead to disaster and defeat. What, then, is the meaning of this strange repentance? Abarbanel solves our difficulty as follows:

"There is no doubt that the [group of] Israelites, in declaring 'Here we are; we shall ascend,' DID NOT REPENT COMPLETELY! For tshould have said to Moshe, 'Pray on behalf of your servants[that we should be victorious in battle], for we have sinned to God.' But they believed in their strength and their ability to fight, and God did not desire this. Therefore they did not succeed in their actions, and the Holy One did not accept their repentance as He accepted the repentance of those who were bitten by the snakes, for they admitted their sin and said to Moshe (Bemidbar 21:7), 'We sinned, for we spoke against God and against you' - and therefore their repentance was accepted and they were healed."

The proof Abarbanel brings to show that the repentance of the ma'apilim was not complete FROM THE START is unconvincing. From the words, "Here we are; we shall ascend," he deduces that "they believed in their strength and their ability to fight" - but why is this necessarily so? Their statement in full is, "Here we are; we shall ascend to the place THAT GOD SAID," and in Sefer Devarim: "We shall ascend and we shall fight, AS ALL THAT GOD HAS COMMANDED US!" These words do not support Abarbanel's explanation. On what basis does he claim that if they had indeed repented completely, they should have approached Moshe to pray on their behalf? Is this a necessary precondition for repentance?

The Netziv has a slightly different understanding of their repentance, as presented in his Ha'amek Davar:

(40) "'And they arose early in the morning…' - THEY WISHED TO REPENT FOR THEIR SIN, and they accepted upon themselves TO GIVE UP THEIR LIVES for entry into the land, even without being accompanied by the Ark of God and by Moshe.

'For we have sinned' - WE MUST REPAIR THE VERY MATTER IN WHICH WE SINNED, therefore - behold, here we are, ready to GIVE OURSELVES UP to this danger.

(41) 'Why now do you transgress God's word?' - Although it is [generally] praiseworthy to repair a sin in the very matter that made it a sin, it is not so in a case where the repentance itself is likewise against God's word; self-sacrifice of this sort is not accepted.

(44) 'And they rose up to ascend' - even though they should have believed Moshe's warnings, they nevertheless strengthened their hearts to think that this warning was given only so that their self-sacrifice would be genuine…"

In other words, the ma'apilim, eager to repent, interpreted Moshe's words as an attempt to test their level of self-sacrifice: would it stand a situation where Divine protection was not guaranteed for them? But they erred in this interpretation. It is doubtful, however, whether the Netziv's interpretation fits the literal text.

We have no solution to the paradox. No doubt some profound psychological and religious insight is required in order to understand the situation described here. But one thing is certain: the ma'apilim are not depicted in the Torah in a one-sided and unequivocal manner as complete sinners. On the contrary - there is clearly a positive note that presents them as true penitents. But this repentance was unbalanced, full of good intentions and genuine self-sacrifice, to the point that they went so far as to rebel against the word of God, Who did not desire this repentance as they perceived it.


(Translated by Kaeren Fish.

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