Friday, June 8, 2007

A God Who Hates You

Sometimes a crime is so bad, so ugly and so evil it shatters the World Order. Eating the Fruit of Knowledge is one example. The Golden Calf is another.

These sins changed the world – man was expelled from Eden and the Two Tablets were smashed – but G-d had contingency plans. History moved forward for a while, albeit with two strikes. Then came strike three.

In parshat Shelach, G-d pitches a fastball right over the plate and we foul it badly. This time it’s game over. The flow of history is frozen for forty years, the Temple is doomed to destruction and the Jews are fated to millennia of exile. Few people know when Adam and Eve ate the Fruit of Knowledge or when we worshipped the Golden Calf, but everyone knows what happened on the Ninth of Av. That was the day of the Sin of the Spies.

Preparing to invade the Promised Land, the Jews send a team of spies to scout out the land and report back on the strength of the enemy. Forty days later, the spies return disheartened. The enemy is too strong, they say. We can never defeat them.

The Jews are devastated by the spies’ report and they – how shall we put it – overreact.

That night, the nation wept…

“We wish we had died in Egypt! We should have died in the desert! Why is G-d bringing us to this land to die by the sword? Our wives and children will be captives. It would be best to go back to Egypt.

The people started saying to one another, “Let’s appoint a [new] leader and go back to Egypt.”

Bamidbar 14:1,3-4

This unspeakable heresy and betrayal was the great strike three. To this very day we suffer the consequences.

G-d said to the Jews, “You cried for no reason, I’ll establish it for you [as a day of] crying for generations.”

Talmud, Sanhedrin 104b

The nation’s reaction to the spies’ report altered the course of Jewish history. Forevermore, the Ninth of Av would be a day reserved for retribution. From the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples to the expulsion from Spain to the outbreak of the First World War, many great disasters of our history occurred on the Ninth of Av. Let’s take another look at the bitter words that are at the root of so much pain.

Why is G-d bringing us to this land to die by the sword? Our wives and children will be captives. It would be best to go back to Egypt.

Several questions come to mind. First of all, what is this nonsense about a return to Egypt? Did the Jews have such fond memories of slavery and infanticide? Why would they want to go back there?!

It might sound crazy at first, but if you think about it for a moment it actually makes a lot of sense. The Jews have two options. They can trek across the Sinai desert, confronting the hostile nations of Amalek, Esav, Sichon, Ammon, Moav and Midian along the way, only to arrive at their destination to do battle with the dug-in armies of Canaan. If and when the Jews manage to conquer the country, they will have to live with savage Philistine hordes and regular bouts of famine and drought. Alternatively, the Jews can turn around and return to Egypt – a country whose entire army lies dead on the floor of the Red Sea. They can waltz right back into Egypt and take over, maybe even enslaving their former masters. Think of the sweet revenge and poetic justice! And Egypt has the Nile – no fear of drought. Which option would you choose?

When the Jews learn how formidable their enemy is, it is no wonder that they prefer to return to Egypt. Is this really such a terrible crime?

It would seem that the problem here is not so much the desire to go to Egypt, but what the Jews think of G-d at this juncture. When they hear of the challenge ahead, the Jews don’t lose faith in G-d’s existence or fault Moshe’s leadership, they just conclude that G-d is out to get them. “Why is G-d bringing us to this land to die by the sword?” Just in case you didn’t catch their meaning, the Torah clarifies it later. When Moshe retells this story, he quotes the Jews as saying something even more revealing and disturbing:

“G-d brought us out of Egypt because He hated us! He wanted to turn us over to the Amorites to destroy us!”

Devarim 1:27

When the going gets tough, the Jews think G-d hates them. It’s a strange thing to think. What could G-d possibly have against these poor ex-slaves wandering in the desert? Is there a rational explanation for this kind of pessimistic theology?

This too is not all that crazy. R. Ovadya Seforno (Italy, 1470-1550) reminds us that the Jews were quite pagan when they lived in Egypt. They had not forgotten their sins in Egypt, nor did they forget the sin of the Golden Calf. Brought to the impenetrable borders of Israel, they assumed that Judgment Day had arrived. G-d was going to kill them all.

It is not an unreasonable assumption – if you have a selective memory. The Jews see the enemy, remember their sins, feel unworthy and assume that G-d hates them. But the Jews forgot a few things. They forgot the Ten Plagues. They forgot the Exodus. They forgot the Splitting of the Sea. They forgot Mt. Sinai, Torah, the Mishkan, the Manna, etc., etc. After all the divine love showered upon them these past two years, could the Jews really think that G-d took them out of Egypt in order to destroy them? G-d was troubled by this same question, but He had a funny way of asking it:

“How long will they not believe in Me, despite all the miracles that I have performed in their midst?”

Bamidbar 14:11

Not believe? The Jews clearly believed in G-d, they just thought that He was out to get them. It seems, at least as far as G-d is concerned, that belief in an unforgiving, hateful G-d is not belief at all.

How did this happen? How did the Jews make such a terrible mistake? They focused on the negative and they forgot the positive. A pessimistic outlook caused them to misread their predicament and think that G-d hated them when, in fact, He loved them very much. This was the sin that destroyed the world.


  1. You stated that the Jews felt unworthy. Perhaps they were still embedded in the physical world, and believed strongly that their destiny was in their own hands. There were individual miraculous acts by HaShem, but it was still not accepted that those acts were really for the eventual benefit of the individuals. Remember that perhaps there was a suspicion that these miracles were to lead to a plan by HaShem for a Holocaust for them!! At least in Egypt, they lived.

    Basically, there was a lack of real faith in HaShem to act according to the provided covenant. In the physical world, we are all witnesses to worldly contracts between countries that are abbrogated, or dismissed.

    Indeed, I believe that HaShem was aware of the thoughts in the minds of the Hebrews in the desert. He knew that these thoughts could not be dispelled in a short time and that these people would be reluctant to do battle with a strong enemy.
    QUESTION: Could HaShem have announced to Moses even before the Golden Calf incident that this generation of Hebrews was not prepared to face the hardships required to conquor the land of Canaan? If yes, why did he not do this? On the same question, if no, why did he choose that option?

    Answering my own question: If yes, then the Hebrews in the desert would have stopped, turned around and immediately gone back to Egypt.
    If no, then he let the Hebrews answer their own question that they were not ready to undergo the hardships required to obtain the promised land. Instead of immediately turning around, they did some contemplation, realized that they were inadequate and began to turn toward the covenant. They began to accept their physical world deficiencies based on the story of the spies and the fate of the spies. At the same time, they began to start accepting HaShem as their supreme being.

    If this analysis is correct, then it says that Tisha B'Av may be the start of an horrendous event required to make the Hebrews wake up to establishing a stronger relationship with HaShem, and that the eventual outcome will be a stronger relationship with HaShem. It is not within our physical knowledge to predict when this stronger relationship will occur, but it definitely will happen. (Hopefully soon).

  2. if women didn't sin....(ie gold calf, sin of the spies) why do we have to fast?