German is the most frustrating language. I’ve done Russian, French and Hebrew. I’ve learned new alphabets, switched from left to right. But nothing beats a complex German sentence to make a new student crazy. The thing is, except for very, very basic sentences, the main verb or the main part of a complex verb — the action word that tells you what the entire sentence is about — is often nowhere in sight until you get near day trial. Just as the people proved faith or at the end. You can be clueless as to what you’re reading about until you get there. Sometimes it feels like I should skip ahead so I at least have a clue where I’ll eventually end up.
Maybe we need to do that with the story of the ill-fated mission of the 12 scouts, which opens this week’s parshah. We begin with an extended description of the brave leaders that Moses selected from each of the tribes for an advance reconnaissance mission of the Promised Land. It all makes us think the journey should have gone well. But we know better if we skip ahead to verse 25: “At the end of 40 days they returned from scouting the land.”
So what? Isn’t 40 just a symbolic number in the Bible, a sign the scouts have been gone a long time, like the worldwide flood lasting 40 days or Moses being up on Mount Sinai for the same period of time? Actually it’s not that simple. The number 40, as used throughout Tanakh, is a key that something else is going on here.
The number 40 represents a time of trial or judgment, of God testing peoples’ faithfulness in the face of challenges, obstacles and even pending doom. Some pass the test: Noah withstood the 40 days of flood, even as he watched the rest of humanity, and most everything else on earth, vanish under the waters; the young shepherd David slew the Philistine giant Goliath with a slingshot after Goliath had menaced the Israelites for 40 days; the people of Nineveh repented of sin and changed their ways in the 40-day grace period proclaimed by God through the prophet Jonah.
But some fail the test — none more so than the scouts, who symbolically represent their tribes before God in this 40-day trail. Just as the people proved faithless and created the Golden Calf during Moses’ 40 days on Mount Sinai, so do the people now rail against Moses, Aaron and even God when they hear that this is a land full of giants that “devour its settlers.” “If only we had died in Egypt,” the people now lament, “or if only we might die in the wilderness!” So God grants their request, declaring that none of the generation who left Egypt, save Joshua and Caleb, will enter the Promised Land. Indeed, they will wander for — you got it — 40 years.
The number 40 represents challenge and trial — but by its very nature it also represents opportunity. So it is that the calendar gives us 40 days between the first day of the month of Elul, when we begin to blow the shofar as a wake-up call to repentance, and Yom Kippur, the 10th of Tishri, which concludes the Days of Awe. So it is that a mikvah is required to contain 40 se’ahs of water, to bring someone to a state of ritual purity and renewal (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 13a).
And so it is that the 40 years of wandering, decreed by God after the spiritual failure of the Israelites in this parshah, becomes a period of purification and preparation for the next generation to enter Canaan. Like a student of the German language, the rabbis (Midrash Rabbah Song of Songs II:18) know to skip ahead in the story when they witness Moses declaring at the end of his life, “Hear, O Israel: On this day you becom a people to Adonai your God” (Deut. 27:9). It is a clear statement from their prophet and leader that, 40 years after the came down Mount Sinai with the teaching of God, the people Israel are finally ready to receive it.
Rabbi Audrey Korotkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona.