Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shelah Lekha 5764/ June 12, 2004

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




The Ma’apilim


Prof. Amos Frisch

Department of Bible


Ma’apilim” is a classic term in the Zionist lexicon: “Ha’apilu, ha’apilu, el rosh ha- har ha’apilu” [“Charge audaciously up the mountain”] is the refrain of a song about illegal immigrants who ran the British blockade of Palestine. Less known is the origin of the name, a passage in this week’s reading which is often overlooked.  On the margins of the great saga of the spies, the main subject of Parashat Shelah, is the story of the ma’apilim, those who defiantly marched toward the crest of the hill country, expressing the strong will of the people to enter the land of Israel immediately.  

Our study of this briefly recounted episode (Num. 14:40-45) focuses around three main questions:

1.          Why were the Israelites forbidden to march up to the hill country and advance towards the land of Israel, and why, when they did try to ascend, were they smitten?  What was wrong in their action?

2.          How does the story of these ma’apilim fit into its context in the book of Numbers?

3.          One of the differences between Moses’ report about the ma’apilim in his speech in Deuteronomy and the description given of them in Numbers is the reference to bees (Deut. 1:44); why did he compare the enemy’s response to the behavior of bees?

After hearing the severe punishment that was decreed upon the people in the wake of the sin of the spies, who counseled against entering the land, the ma’apilim arose and did the diametrical opposite, embarking on an action aimed at immediate entrance.   Was that a sin?

This action seems to have aspects both of enlightenment and benightedness.  In one way, it provided an immediate redress of the terrible sin of the spies; on the other hand, this redress came too late, and the action was not pleasing to the Lord.   Some commentators emphasize the positive aspect, while others stress the negative.  For example, the Netziv of Volozhin (Ha’amek Davar) ascribes good intentions to the ma’apilim in attempting to redress the sin of the spies – “they undertook to risk their lives for the sake of entering the land.”  So why did they meet their death in battle; why were they denied help from G-d?  His explanation is that they were not punished; rather, they endangered their own lives by ascending to the crest of the hill country, where the enemy had a far superior position, but because of their earlier behavior they were not worthy of G-d performing a miracle to save them.  Similarly, Ralbag (in his commentary on Deuteronomy) viewed their actions as a cry of regret, but that did not suffice to commute the sentence that had been passed against them.  Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel, to give a counter-example, explained that the ma’apilim did not repent of their sin in rejecting the promised land.  In his opinion, had they been truly repentant they would have asked Moses to intercede on their behalf before the Lord, as the victims of the snake bites did (Num. 21:7). [1]

Which approach should we prefer?   Some people find guidance in a close reading of the words spoken by the ma’apilim:   “to the place that the Lord has spoken that we have sinned” [translated as literal as possible and deliberately not punctuated], as if to imply that only from the point of view of the Lord was their action presented as sinful, but the ma’apilim themselves did not think they were committing any sin. [2]   It turns out, however, that their words should be read differently:  “We are prepared to go up to the place that the Lord has spoken of, for we were wrong” (Num. 15:40, NJPS rendition), where the word ki is rendered as the causal word “for.” [3]   In the light of this reading we can understand Moses’ summation in the parallel account in Deuteronomy, where the ma’apilim are reputed to have admitted, “We stand guilty before the Lord” (Deut. 1:41).

Thus the words ki hatanu, “for we have sinned” or “for we were wrong,” can be understood as a confession by these people regarding their wrongdoing, yet nevertheless they are viewed negatively.  Moses rebuked them, saying, “Why do you transgress the Lord’s command?  This will not succeed” (Num. 14:41) – an explicit statement against their current action.  How is it that people who loudly proclaim, “We were wrong,” announce a moment earlier that they have in mind to take new action, action that would be viewed as compounding their sins? 

It can only be that in ascending to the hill country these people believed they were doing the will of G-d, perhaps even correcting their earlier wrongdoing.  As the basis for this action they could claim G-d’s command, “Go up, take possession” (Deut. 1:21).   Their mistake, however, lay in ignoring the change of policy that occurred as a result of their sin; what had previously been desirable now became forbidden. [4]   Thus they compounded their guilt by not retreating even when Moses told them explicitly that marching toward the crest of the hill country was against G-d’s word; even then they were not dissuaded, but continued on their way.   It should be mentioned in this regard that an allusion to the binding of Isaac has been seen in this story, a clear contrast between Abraham rising early to head for the place “which the Lord said”, as against the zeal of the ma’apilim who mistakenly believed that by going up they were fulfilling the Lord’s command.

Their sin is manifest in their forbidden ascent to the crest of the hill country.  The Hebrew root ‘a – l – h appears four times in this narrative, rendered in the NJPS translation in the following phrases:  “they set out toward the crest,” “We are prepared to go up,” “Do not go up,” and “defiantly they marched toward the crest.”   In contrast to these four occurrences is the single use of the diametrically opposed verb, y – r –d, “came down” (v. 45), in the description of the enemy’s response, crushing those who marched up.  The verb ‘a – l –h also occurs four times in the parallel passage, in Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy (“we will go up,” “you recklessly started for the hill country,” “do not go up,” and “you flouted the Lord’s command and willfully marched into the hill country”).

This verb is not used merely to emphasize the theme – the sin of marching up to the crest when forbidden to do so – rather, this verb also links the action of the people who marched up with the action of the spies.  For the sin committed by the spies and by the people whom they misled in their report lay in loss of faith that they could enter the land, and there too we find repeated use of the root ‘a-l-h:  “We cannot attack (Heb. la-‘ alot) that people, for it is stronger than we” (Num. 13:31). [5]   But Caleb enthusiastically countered their words, saying, “Let us by all means go up (aloh na’aleh)” (v. 30).   Those who had previously been opposed to going up now tried, as it were, to atone for their sin by immediately marching up.  They were so enthusiastic about going up that even Moses’ instruction, “do not go up,” did not stop them, rather they continued their march.

The well-known preacher Rabbi Isaac Nussenbaum interpreted the two sins, following one on the other, through the prism of his perception of current events in his day.  The sin of the spies was characterized, in his opinion, by the land being distanced from the Torah, and the sin of the ma’apilim, by the Torah being distanced from the land (when the people charged, the Ark of the Lord remained behind).  Of course the proper course of action would have been one that combines the Torah with the Holy Land. [6]

As we observed, Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy also uses the verb ‘a – l – h.  But another verb which appears along with it also deserves attention:   the root l – h – m, meaning to fight, wage war:  “we will go up now and fight,” “war gear,” “do not go up and do not fight.”  What gave these people the courage to go up and fight?   A possible source may have been the encouraging words said by Joshua and Caleb, the twko spies who dissented from the discouraging words of the majority:   “Only you must not rebel against the Lord.  Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey (... but the Lord is with us.   Have no fear of them!” (Num. 14:9).   Note that the word for “prey” is lahmenu hem, Hebrew root l – h – m, lit. food or bread, the same letters as the root l-h-m ‘to wage war’. Believing that the people of the land were “our prey,” the ma’apilim may have been prepared to go up and fight. [7]   But precisely in this audacity lay rebellion against the Lord; they were doomed to fail because the Lord was not with them.

In Deuteronomy the response of the enemy is described as being like bees:  they “came out against you like so many bees and chased you” (1:44).   An effective explanation of this metaphor is given by Ehrlich:  “Just as the bee is a small creature and weapons of war are ineffective against it, because G-d gave it a stinger, so too did the Amorites chase you because the Lord told them to, and not because of their bravery.” [8]

What role is played by the bees in the broader context?  Some modern Bible scholars see this as a play on words, punning with the name of the book:   bees = devorim, Deuteronomy = Devarim. [9]   In my opinion, however, the connection should be sought in terms of meaning and ideas, not sound.   Further on, Moses describes the loving mercy the people could expect from the Lord as they face conquering the land:   “The Lord your G-d will also send a hornet against them, until those who are left in hiding perish before you” (Deut.7:20).  The two situations can be contrasted:  a blessing from Heaven, expressed by an insect stinging the enemies of Israel, as opposed to a punishment from Heaven, where the enemy stings like bees.   The image of bees, in itself and in comparison with the contrasting image of the hornet, emphasizes that military success is seen as a tool in the hands of G-d.

Everything depends on luck, even the fate of a word.   In the biblical narrative ha’apalah is used to describe an act of rebellion against G-d, and the operation does not succeed.  In our times, however, the word ha’apalah acquired a positive connotation, coming to signify the determined struggle of the Jews to immigrate to Palestine.   Insofar as we might interpret Divine Providence, we dare say that the modern ha’apalah was pleasing to the Lord.  The difference between the two operations, in their nature and their fate, was foreseen and hinted at in the words of the sage and hassid who commented on the phrase in the biblical narrative, “This will not succeed” (Num. 13:41), saying that in the wake of the Messiah it would succeed! [10]   This reversal in the connotations of ha’apalah underlies the song with which began our article, a song which called on the Jews not to be discourage but to immigrate to Israel and build up the land. [11]


[1] Compare this with his commentary on Deuteronomy:  “Since their response was given with pride and contempt and the giddiness of victory.”

[2] Ascribed to the Ba’al Shem Tov.    This is also the interpretation given by Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, Oznayim la-Torah – Numbers, 10th edition, Jerusalem 1996, p. 174.

[3] Not “that,” as in the JB translation:  “for this place, since G-d has told us that we have sinned”; rather, as in the NJPS translation given here in the text and in other translations.   Some translations even stress recognition of wrongdoing, interpreting the Hebrew word ki as giving emphasis, as in the NEB translation:  “We admit that we have been wrong.”

[4] This is discussed at length in the article by Prof. S. Zalevsky (“Ma’amado ha-Nevu’i shel Moshe ‘al Reka Aliyatim u-Nefilatim shel ha-Ma’apilim,” in B. Z.Luria (ed.), Sefer Dr. Barukh Ben-Yehudah, Tel Aviv 1981, pp. 104-120), who goes so far as to maintain that the Israelites rebelled against Moses’ authority as a prophet, who presented them with a prohibition which was contrary to what they had known in the past.

[5] Perhaps these words are also an attack on the spies themselves, insofar as this verse refers to them as “the men who had gone up (root ‘a – l – h) with him,” and the verb ‘a – l – h is used to describe the reconnaissance mission.  Thus, the men who succeeded in entering the land on a forty-day mission the entire length of the country do not believe they can succeed in entering the country in military conquest.

[6] See Rabbi Y. Nussenbaum, Kinyanei Kedem, Second edition, Jerusalem 1978, pp. 88-92.  For a detailed analysis of his perception of the status of the land, see D. Schwartz, Eretz ha-Mamashut ve-ha-DimyonMa’amadah shel Eretz Yisrael be-Hagut ha-Ziyyonit ha- Datit, Tel Aviv 1997, Ch. 3, pp. 45-61.   

[7] Two other examples can be given of l-h-m (bread) and milhahamah (battle) appearing as related key words in the biblical narrative:   1) The story of the concubine in Gibeah (whose origin from Beth-lehem is stressed in the story).  The first part of the story (Judges 19) contrasts the father-in-law’s hospitality with the reception given by the men of Gibeah, l – h – m (bread) being mentioned in both settings (verses 5 and 19). The second part of the story (ch. 20) deals with the battle ( milhamah ) against the tribe of Benjamin.    2) The way the sons of Jesse of Bethlehem arrived at the site of the battle with the Philistines (I Sam. 17):   his three eldest sons go with Saul to the battle (l – h – m appearing twice in verse 13), whereas David is sent to bring his brothers provisions, bread (lehem ) being one of the components (verse 17).

[8] A. Erlich, Mikra ke-Peshuto I, Berlin 1899 (reprinted  New York 1969), p. 312.

[9] See D. L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1:1 – 21:9, revised edition (WBC), Nashville 2001, p. 32.

[10] Rabbi Zadok Ha-Cohen, Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik, Jerusalem 1968 [first printing, 1902], sect. 47.

[11] The clear connection between this song and the biblical story is evident from the opening line of the third verse, Nahin la- rom, nahin la-rom (“Yes, upwards; yes, upwards”), which plays on the biblical words, “ va-tahinu la’a lot ha- harah” (“you recklessly started for the hill country”), and transforms the negative to positive.