As any youngster who has studied Parshas Shelach will tell you, the punishment meted out to the Meraglim (spies) sent to scout Eretz Yisrael was unshakably fair: Forty years the Children of Israel would have to wander in the desert – a year for each day that the spies had spent scouting the Land and preparing their slanderous report, which the fledgling nation was all-too-quick to accept. Upon reflection, however, we are left questioning the seemingly harsh penalty: Was it truly necessary to make them suffer a full year for each day spent in sin? Would not a day for a day, or even a week for a day, been more equitable? Furthermore, why does the Torah, when defining the sentence, reverse the order of the words? “A day for a year, a day for a year, shall you bear your iniquities…” (14:34) Shouldn’t it have said, “A year for a day,” and not, “a day for a year?” [Numerous commentaries raise this question. See, for instance, K’li Yakar.]
Irving took a long look at the speedometer of his spanking-new sports car before slowing down: Seventy-three in a fifty-five zone! The flashing red lights in his rear-view mirror insisted he pull over quickly, but Irving let his car coast to a stop. Fourth time in as many months – how could a guy get caught so often? He slumped into his seat, and tapped the steering wheel, doing his best to look bored, his eyes gazing in the rear-view mirror. The cop was stepping out of his car, a big pad in hand.
Irving was tempted to leave the window shut long enough to gain the psychological edge, but decided on a different tactic. Jumping out of his car, he approached the officer contritely.
“Fancy that officer,” he smiled, “guess you caught me red-handed in a rush to get home to my wife and kids!” “Guess so,” he seemed uncertain – good.
“I’ve been spending some long days at the office lately; tax-season, you know. Seems I bent the rules a bit – just this once.” He toed at a pebble on the pavement. “Know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. You know, sir, you have a bit of a reputation in our precinct.” Ouch! This was not going in the right direction. Time to change tactics.
“What’d you clock me at?” “Seventy-one. Would you sit back in your car, please sir.” “Now wait a second here officer, I checked my speedometer as soon as I saw you – I was barely nudging 65!” The lie seemed to come easier with each ticket. “Please, sir, in the car.”
Flustered, Irving hunched himself through the still-open door. Slamming it shut, he stared at the dashboard. The minutes ticked by. The officer scribbled away on his pad. Why hadn’t he asked for a license? After what seemed to be an eternity, a tap on the door jerked his head to the left. There he was, a folded paper in his hand. Irving rolled down the window a mere two inches, just enough room for the officer to pass him the slip. “Thanks.” Irving could not quite keep the sneer out of his voice. The officer returned to his car without a word.
Irving then unfolded the slip of paper – how much was this one going to cost him? Wait a minute. What was this? Some kind of joke? Certainly not a ticket. Irving began to read:
Once upon a time I had a daughter. She was six when she was killed by a car. You guessed it – a speeding driver. A fine and three months in jail, and the man was free. Free to hug his daughters – all three of them. I only had one, and I’m not going to be hugging her again. A thousand times I’ve tried to forgive that man. A thousand times I thought I had. But I just can’t. I am not giving you a ticket. I ask, rather, that you spend a moment thinking about this story. And, please, be careful – my son is all I have left!
Irving shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Then he twisted around in time to see the officer’s car pull away, and head down the road. Irving watched until it disappeared. A full 15 minutes later, he too pulled away, and drove slowly home. His kids were surprised by the bear- hugs he gave them when he arrived home.
Sometimes, in the haste of a moment, we make critical decisions whose repercussions reach far beyond the split-second it took to make them. Events that change our lives forever are often predicated by no more than a momentary lapse in forethought. Perhaps, had the spies sat back and rethought what they were about to do, they would have recognized the foolishness of their plan. It was, after all, the Almighty, and not the Land, they were slandering. Perhaps, indeed, after hearing Hashem’s wrathful response to their report, they immediately saw the error in their ways. Perhaps they wanted to take it all back, to chalk it all up to a fleeting imprudence, deserving of no more than a symbolic slap-on-the-hand, after which all would be forgiven and forgotten, and they could immediately resume their imminent passage into the Holy Land.
It was not to be. The damage had been done. A nation once deserving of receiving the Holiest of Lands as their eternal inheritance was no longer. Their children, too young to have been sullied by the malicious slander – would inherit the Land.
“A day for a year.” Sometimes, a day of misjudgment and haste, brings in its wake a full year of tzures. Sometimes – it’s a lifetime. Perhaps, at the Meraglim’s expense, the Torah is teaching us a critical lesson: It can take a lot more than a moment to rectify a moment. Think first, think again, and only then do. Life is precious – handle with care.
Have a good Shabbos.