Thoughts on Devarim, this week’s Torah portion, in memory of my father and teacher Sanford “Whitey” Watzman, who left us two years ago on 2 Av. This is an English version of the original Hebrew essay, published in Shabbat Shalom, the weekly Torah portion sheet published by Oz VeShalom/Netivot Shalom. The original Hebrew version can be read here .
There once was a city, somewhere in the Negev, whose name went down in biblical history as the site of a painful defeat for the children of Israel. The rout at Hormah took place in a war against the Canaanite nations, which followed the sin of the spies. For that sin, the Children of Israel were punished—their entry into the Promised Land was delayed by a generation. Their crime was the lack of faith displayed by the generation that left Egypt, their reluctance to fight the war that awaited them when they crossed from the wilderness into Canaan. The failure of conviction began at the leadership level, among ten of the twelve spies sent to scout the land, and quickly spread to the entire nation.
But the war fought at Hormah did not come in retribution for the sin of the spies. It was imposed subsequent to that sin and its punishment. After comprehending how grave and error they had made, a vanguard of the people to take the initiative to correct it. The Ma’apilim, meaning “the scalers [of the heights],” now understood that it was God’s will that the Israelites fight bravely against the Canaanite nations. They organized to take determined action, as Moses relates in this week’s Torah portion (Deut. 1:41): “We stand guilty before the LORD. We will go up now and fight, just as the LORD our God commanded us.” The call to arms grew out of profound remorse for the sin and a real desire to atone for it. But instead of accepting the heroism and good intentions of the Ma’apilim, God condemned them and meted out another heavy punishment, in addition to that of the sin of the spies: “Then the Amorites who lived in those hills came out against you like so many bees and chased you, and they crushed you at Hormah in Seir.” It is easy to imagine the shattered and bloodied survivors asking themselves: “What does God want with us? When we said we were scared of conquering the land, we were sentenced to die in the desert, and when we fervently set out to conquer the land, we died at Hormah.”