We read in Parashat Shelach of Moshe’s impassioned plea on behalf of Benei Yisrael after God informed Moshe of His decision to annihilate the nation in response to the sin of the spies. Moshe begged the Almighty to forgive the people’s betrayal “as You have borne [the iniquity of] this people from Egypt until now” (14:19). God accepted Moshe’s petition, and proclaimed, “Salachti ki-dvarekha” – “I have forgiven as you spoke” (14:20). He then quickly added, “However…all the people who saw My glory and My wonders which I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness…shall not see the land which I promised to their forefathers…” (14:21-23). Although God agreed not to annihilate the nation, He decreed that the current adult generation would perish in the wilderness, and only their children will enter the Land of Israel.
God’s pronouncement of forgiveness – “Salachti ki-dvarekha” – is cited by Rashi in his commentary to Parashat Yitro (Shemot 18:13) in reference to – surprisingly enough – the sin of the golden calf. In discussing the chronological sequence of the events told in Parashat Yitro, Rashi comments that on Yom Kippur, nearly three months after the sin of the golden calf, God announced to Moshe that He has forgiven Benei Yisrael, proclaiming, “Salachti ki-dvarekha.” (Tosafot in Masekhet Bava Kama 82a cite this comment in the name of Seder Olam Rabba.) As many later commentators noted, Rashi here seems to extract this proclamation from its context – the sin of the spies. It is clear in Parashat Shelach that the announcement “Salachti ki-dvarekha” was made in response to Moshe’s plea after the sin of the spies, not after the sin of the golden calf. Why, then, does Rashi tells of God making this proclamation after the sin of the golden calf?
Several different answers have been offered to explain Rashi’s comments. Rav Chaim Paltiel suggests that Rashi understood God’s response to Moshe to mean that in previous instances He “has forgiven as you spoke,” fully accepting Moshe’s plea, but in this instance, as God proceeds to declare, He will not be actually forgiving the people. Although He agreed not to annihilate Benei Yisrael, He will decree death upon that entire generation. According to this interpretation, the pronouncement of “Salachti ki-dvarekha” indeed refers to God’s forgiveness for the sins committed prior to the sin of the spies, including the golden calf. A similar explanation is offered by Chizkuni.
Da’at Zekeinim explains that since God announced His forgiveness “ki-dvarekha,” just as He had forgiven Benei Yisrael on past occasions when Moshe interceded on their behalf, the phrase “Salachti ki-dvarekha” in a sense refers even to those prior occasions.
Rabboteinu Ba’alei Ha-Tosafot offer a different answer, suggesting that perhaps the verse, “The Lord said: I have forgiven as you spoke” is actually the conclusion of Moshe’s plea. Moshe recalled the prior occasions – specifically, after the sin of the calf – when God told him, “Salachti ki-dvarekha,” pronouncing His forgiveness of the people’s misdeed. Thus, this proclamation was made not after the sin of the spies, but rather after the sin of the golden calf, as Moshe recalled after the sin of the spies. Quite obviously, however, this is a very strained reading of the text, and, as noted by the Rash Mi-Shantz (in Shita Mekubetzet, Bava Kama 82a), it fails to account for the next verse, in which God is clearly the one speaking (“However, as I live…”). According to this reading, that the verse, “The Lord said: I forgive” was spoken by Moshe, the Torah should have then told us that God responded, “However, as I live…” rather than just presenting the response without the introduction, “God said.”