Devarim 5775 - “Forty Years”

Volume 29, Issue 39

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The midrash Yalkut Shimoni comments on the verse in our parashah (1:2), “Eleven days from Horev [i.e., Har Sinai], by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh-Barnea,” as follows: Rabbi Yehuda says, “If Bnei Yisrael had merited, they would have entered Eretz Yisrael in three days, as it is written (Bemidbar 10:33), ‘The Ark of the Covenant of Hashem journeyed before them a three-day distance to search out for them a resting place.’ ‘A resting place’ can only mean Eretz Yisrael, as we read (Devarim 12:9), ‘For you have not yet come to the resting place or to the heritage that Hashem, your Elokim, gives you’.” Rabbi Bena’ah says, “If Bnei Yisrael had merited, they would have entered Eretz Yisrael in one day, as it is written (Shmot 13:4-5), ‘Today you are leaving [Egypt], in the month of springtime. And it shall come to pass, when Hashem will bring you to the land . . .’” Rabbi Yose ben Chanan says, “If Bnei Yisrael had merited, they would have entered Eretz Yisrael the moment they had stepped out of the Yam Suf, as it is written (in our parashah– 1:21), ‘Go up [from the sea] and possess [the Land]’.” [Until here from the midrash.]

R’ Chaim Palagi z”l (1788-1868; rabbi of Izmir, Turkey) writes: Just as one is rewarded for each step he takes when he walks to the bet ha’knesset, so every step one takes on his way to Eretz Yisrael is a mitzvah, and an angel is created from that step. Had Bnei Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael quickly, as the various opinions in the midrash suggest, they would have lost that merit. Even so, the additional 40 years of performing the agricultural mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael that they would have gained would have far outweighed the merit of taking extra steps on the way to the Land. (Artzot Ha’chaim p.24)

“The days that we traveled from Kadesh Barnea until we crossed Zered Brook were thirty eight years–until the end of the entire generation, the men of war, from the midst of the camp, as Hashem swore to them. (2:14)

R’ Aharon Lewin z”l Hy”d (1879-1941; rabbi of Rzeszow, Poland and member of the Polish parliament; killed in the Holocaust) asks: Kadesh Barnea is the place from which the Spies were dispatched and where Bnei Yisrael were encamped when Hashem decreed that they would wander in the desert for 40 years. Bnei Yisrael were in the desert for a total of 40 years (less five days). But, the incident of the Spies occurred 16 months after the Exodus, meaning that the period after the incident of the Spies was only 38 years and eight months. As our verse says, “The days that we traveled from Kadesh Barnea until we crossed Zered Brook were thirty eight years”! What happened to the remainder of the 40 years?

R’ Lewin explains: Rashi z”l himself was bothered by this question, and he explains (in his commentary to Bemidbar 14:33): “Hashem ‘contemplated’ this decree from the moment they made the Golden Calf, but He waited for them [i.e., He postponed their punishment] until their measure of sin was full.” The Golden Calf was made in the first year following the Exodus. If the first year is counted, Bnei Yisrael were punished for 40 years.

However, R’ Lewin asks on Rashi’s explanation: The arithmetic still doesn’t work, as the golden calf was not made until the seventeenth of Tammuz, three months after the Exodus!

He explains: Bnei Yisrael were “sentenced” to remain in the desert for 40 years because the Spies traveled for 40 days–a year for each day, or a month for each daylight hour. (The Spies did not travel at night.) Rashi (to Bemidbar 13:3) writes that when the Spies began their mission, they were still righteous. We can assume therefore that they davened before setting out on their journey, perhaps even a long davening that occupied the first three hours of the day. That would mean their mission lasted 40 days less three hours. At the rate of a month for each hour, three months had to be subtracted from their time in the desert. Thus, the total punishment–from the seventeenth of Tammuz in the first year until they entered Eretz Yisrael– lasted 40 years minus three months. (Ha’drash Ve’ha’iyun)

From the Haftarah . . .

“The vision of Yeshayahu son of Amotz, which he saw concerning Yehuda and Yerushalayim, in the days of Uzziah, Yotam, Achaz and Chizkiyah, kings of Yehuda.”
(Yeshayah 1:1)

The Gemara (Bava Batra 14b) describes the Book of Yeshayah as consisting entirely of consolation for the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash and the exile. Yet, our haftarah, the first chapter of that book, is full of rebuke and foreboding! Does this not contradict the Gemara?

R’ Moshe David Valle z”l (1697-1777; Italy) explains: The name of the prophet Yeshayah is related to the word “yeshuah,” which connotes redemption. This similarity indicates that the soul of this prophet came from the “side” of chessed, meaning that his soul was predisposed to chessed / kindness Accordingly, his prophecies are full of hope.

True, Yeshayah opens his book with a seemingly negative prophecy. Even his rebuke, however, has its source in chessed. To what may this be compared? To a mother who punishes her child and then embraces him in a tight hug. When we see that, we understand that the punishment originates from the same love from which the hug later came. (Teshuat Olamim)

From the Tisha B’Av Haftarah . . . “I overpower sorrow, my heart is sick within me. Behold! the voice of my people’s daughter from distant lands . . . If only someone would turn my head to water and my eye to a spring of tears, then I would cry all day and night for the slain of my daughter’s people.” (Yirmiyah 8:18-19, 23)

R’ Dov Berish Weidenfeld z”l (1881-1965; the “Tschebiner Rov”) lost four of his children and their families in the Holocaust. He once commented about that event, paraphrasing our verses: I could overpower sorrow, if only my heart was sick within me. However, I am broken over the voice of my people’s daughter, over the destruction of my nation. If only someone would turn my head to water and my eye to a spring of tears, then I would cry all day and night for the slain of my daughter’s people.” (Quoted in Sar Ha’Torah p.163)


“Exile comes to the world because of idolatry, adultery, murder, and [failure to observe] shemittah.”
(Avot, ch. 5)

We are taught that Hashem punishes man for his sins middah k’negged middah, i.e., the punishment fits the crime. On the simplest level, we can understand that one who transgresses the mitzvah of shemittah–a mitzvah specific to the Land of Israel– deserves to be exiled from that Land. However, R’ Yisrael Meir Lau shlita (former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel) suggests a deeper connection:

One purpose of the mitzvah of shemittah is to strengthen man’s emunah / faith in G-d. Owning land and seeing it produce crops year after year gives a person a certain sense of power and security, thereby causing him to forget Hashem’s role in his success. By not sowing the fields for one year, one acknowledges that the fields belong to Hashem and all sustenance comes from Him.

One who does not observe shemittah needs to learn the same lesson another way. Exile is meant to deprive a person of the sense of power and security that he had when he was a landowner.

[The prophet Yirmiyah foretold the first period of exile from Eretz Yisrael which our ancestors experienced. Based on Vayikra 26:34, our Sages say that one of the sins that caused that exile was the failure to observe shemittah]. Thus we read in Yirmiyah (5:1), “Walk about in the streets of Yerushalayim, see now and know, and seek in its plazas; if you will find a man, if there is one who dispenses justice and seeks emunah, then I will forgive the [the city].” Had the inhabitants of Yerushalayim in the time of Yirmiyah possessed emunah, the exile would not have been necessary. (Yachel Yisrael V, p.152)