The little-known story of the ma’apilim is the historic version of amends made on the perpetrator’s terms without regard for the other.
After the sin of the spies and the Jews’ refusal to enter Israel, G‑d decreed that the Jewish people wander the desert for the next 40 years. A group of Jews insisted on entering Israel anyway and prepared to launch an attack the next morning. Moses warned that their campaign would be unsuccessful, but they took no heed. As the fellowship climbed the mountain to enter the Promised Land, Amalekites, Amorites and Canaanites successfully quashed their attempt and beat them back to Hormah.1
The Story of the Failed Campaign
After the saga of the spies, G‑d, in a scathing speech to Moses and Aaron, promised that the entire generation that left Egypt would die in the desert: “In this desert, your bodies shall fall . . . because you complained against Me . . . Your children shall wander in the desert for 40 years and bear your defection until the last of your bodies have fallen in the desert.”3
Why did G‑d want the Jewish people to wander in the desert for so long before conquering the land? Maimonides explains that it was difficult for the nation to transition from slavery to courageous warfare automatically. Traversing the desert without the usual urban amenities was meant to instill courage and faith in the people. In addition, they would birth children who hadn’t experienced slavery, forming a generation of people for whom freedom was a given.4
When Moses relayed G‑d’s remarks to the people, they mourned intensely. Immediately, a group of soldiers said, “We are ready to ascend to the land G‑d has promised. We have sinned!” Moses told them not to go. “The Ark of the Covenant is not going with you; this campaign will not succeed!”5
The men didn’t listen. The next morning, they climbed to the hill country and staged an attack. It ended badly.6 In Moses’ Deuteronomical rebuke, he describes what happened: “The Amorites who lived in those hills came out against you like bees and chased you, and they crushed you at Hormah in Seir.”7
The war was lost, but the Midrash offers us some consolation. “‘Like bees’—just as a bee dies instantly after stinging a person, [the Amorites] died upon touching you.”8
Other commentators understand the bee metaphor more simply. When bees feel threatened, they will swarm and attack; these nations did the same.9 In addition, bees simply harass their targets but do not kill them. Likewise, the Amorites successfully chased the Jews away but did not manage to cut them down.10
Who Were They?
Traditional Jewish sources say little about the identity of the defiant men. The Talmud records that Zelophehad, whose daughters take center stage in Numbers 27, may have died in the failed campaign.11 Other sages disagree.12
Why the Change of Heart?
As recently as the night prior to their campaign, the majority of Jewish adults scorned the idea of repossessing the land of Israel. The spies, in their scare campaign,13 managed to convince the Jews that their best bet was to return to Egypt, where they’d be safe from the big, strong men of Canaan.14 In his rebuke of the Jewish people, Moses conveyed G‑d’s anger, but he did not address the actual concerns that the Jewish people raised. So how did the ma’apilim suddenly have a change of heart?
Jewish tradition maintains that we all truly believe in G‑d and His omnipotence.15 Sometimes, however, that belief is obscured by a spirit of foolishness.16 To break that bout of folly, Moses rebuked the Jewish people. Tanya explains that Moses didn’t need to address their claims directly because once the fog is cleared, the faithful nature of the Jew will reappear.17
In their admittance of sin, the men demonstrated their newfound belief in G‑d’s power, but it was too late. G‑d had already decreed that the generation had to die out before entering the land.18 In their zeal to repent, the men went too far. While G‑d may have been pleased with their admittance of wrongdoing, the time was no longer ripe to enter the land. Nonetheless, they went through with their campaign. With this, they demonstrated that their repentance wasn’t completely sincere; if they were ready to turn to G‑d, they would have heeded His servant’s warning.19 Moses echoes this in his Deuteronomical rebuke: “I spoke to you, but you would not listen; you flouted G‑d’s command and willfully marched into the hill country.”20
What Were They Thinking?
Rabbi Naftali Berlin,21 Netziv, explains that the defiant men were willing to sacrifice their lives to enter Israel even if Moses and the Ark remained in the camp. They interpreted G‑d’s discouragement as a test of their resolve. Netziv points to a similar moment in Jewish history. Before Hananiah, Mishael, and Azarya cast themselves into Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace, they asked the prophet, Ezekiel, if G‑d would save them. Ezekiel answered in the negative to ascertain whether their dedication to G‑d was genuine, and indeed it was.22 The ma’apilim were mistaken, but they meant well.
Alternatively, Rabbi Zadok Hakohen of Lublin23 posits that there are times when G‑d seems to close the doors of repentance but still desires that the sinner push through.24 He relates the defiant men to Elisha ben Abuya, who was also told that repentance was not an option. Nonetheless, had Elisha repented out of extreme love, his repentance would have been received by G‑d, for that was His true will.
Alternatively, the Rebbe explains that the ma’apilim had indeed atoned for the sin of not wishing to enter the land. However, they died as a result attempting to enter the land against G‑d’s will.27
The path to redemption had to be paved by Moses and the Ark. The fact that they remained behind doomed the ma’apilim from the outset. The final redemption, as well, has a clearly defined path in Jewish law. Hastening the redemption is only possible if we follow G‑d’s plan.28
How to Say Sorry
You meant well when you sent those flowers. But seeking forgiveness is not about regaining our own sense of “I’m a good person.” When we’ve hurt someone we have to ask, “What does the one I hurt need right now?” The path to reconciliation is to listen closely to the one we’ve pained and to genuinely seek his or her welfare. The ma’apilim, though they meant well, didn’t listen to G‑d and Moses—whose trust they had broken just a night earlier.
1. An ancient Israeli city.
2.Rashi on Numbers 14:44.
4.Guide for the Perplexed 3, 32. For another, more chassidic, interpretation, read So Long in the Desert.
6. Ibid. 14:44–45.
8.Numbers Rabbah 17:3, cited in Rashi on Deuteronomy 1:44.
9.Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra and Rabbi Bachya ibn Pekuda on Deuteronomy 1:44.
10.Rabbi Joseph Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 1:44; see also Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach (Chizkuni) ad loc.
11.Rabbi Yehudah ben Beseirah, Talmud, Shabbat 97a.
12. Rabbi Akiva, Talmud, Shabbat 96b, says that Zelophehad died because he gathered wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32).
14.See Numbers 14:3.
15. See, for example, Midrash Exodus Rabbah 3:12: “Ma’aminim bnei ma’aminim—believers, children of believers.”
16.Ruach sh’tut. See Talmud, Sotah 3a.
17.Tanya, end of ch. 29.
18.Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (Or HaChaim) on Numbers 14:44.
19.Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (Or HaChaim) on Deuteronomy 1:43.
21.19th-century biblical commentary, Haamek Davar, on Numbers 14:45.
22.Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah 7:8.
23.19th-century chassidic master, Tzidkat Hatzadik, ch. 46 and Pri Tzadik, Miketz 2.
24.This is an idea that can be traced to the earliest kabbalists (Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas, 16th century, Reishit Chochmah, Shaar Hakedushah 17:21; Rabbi Moses Cordovero, 16th century, quoted in Alpha Beisa Tanisa D’Shmuel Zeira, vol. 1, pp. 335–339) and is based on the Talmudic dictum “One must listen to one’s host unless he asks him to leave” (Pesachim 86b). The host is G‑d. One must listen to G‑d unless He tells man that he can no longer repent (“leave from me”). Then, man must repent nonetheless because G‑d’s true desire is that he repent. Compare this to a father who warns his son that if he commits a certain crime, he would never look at him again. Ultimately, the parent will forgive the child if he sees his remorse is absolutely genuine.
25. Rabbi Yaacov Tzvi Mecklenburg (Haketav Vehakabbalah on Deuteronomy 1:41) points out that the ma’apilim merely said, “We sinned.” To repent truly, he says, one must ask for G‑d’s forgiveness. In addition, the ma’apilim refer to G‑d in the third person, “We sinned against G‑d,” instead of directing the confession toward Him, “We sinned against You.”
26.A similar interpretation is brought in Eliyahu Kitov’s Sefer Haparshiyot in the name of the Chatam Sofer.
27. Sichot Kodesh, Pinchas 5728, 373.
28.Igrot Kodesh, vol. 7, p. 280.