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Shelach: Pardon Me?

לענשלמהבנימיןבןרפאלתנצבה

Num. 14:19 – Please forgive (סלח) the iniquity of this nation in accordance with your abounding kindness.

Moses, the indefatigable shepherd, begs for mercy on behalf of his nation as is his wont, in this instance concerning the sin of the Spies. The Holy One, ever slow to anger, answers immediately in the affirmative:  Num. 14:20 – And the Lord said, “I have forgiven them in accordance with your word.”” Although as mentioned, the context here is the case of the Spies charged with reporting on the Land of Israel, our Sages comment that G-d’s benevolent utterance applies to the sin of the Golden Calf as well:  Ex. Rabba 29:7 – Yea, I will bear, and will deliver (Isa. 46:4)… “I will bear” – [the sin of the] Golden Calf. “And deliver,” as it says: And the Lord said, I have forgiven them in accordance with your word (Num. 14:20). 

One may ask however, if in fact every vestige of these egregious sins was thereby obliterated through this pronouncement of forgiveness or not? For we find numerous atonements for the Calf mentioned afterwards: 1. The acacia wood (שטים) atones for the foolishness (שטות) of the Calf (Tanch. Teruma 10). 2. The gold in the Tabernacle atones for the gold of the Calf (Ex. Rabba 51:8). 3. The calf brought for the Sin-Offering atones for the Calf (Sifra Shmini). 4. Ex. 32:34-  But on the day I make an accounting [of sins upon them], I will bring their sin to account against them; Rashi – Now I have listened to you not to destroy them all at once, but always, always, when I take an accounting of their sins, I will also account a little of this sin with the other sins. [This means that] no punishment befalls Israel in which there is not part of the punishment for the sin of the [golden] calf.Likewise, we find additional atonements associated with the sin of the Spies. 

With so many atonements required, one is led to wonder what precisely was the result of Hashem’s forgiveness for which Moses begged and entreated? 

We begin by noting that in addition to the root סלח (forgiveness) under discussion, another two roots bear similar general meanings: 1. כפר (atonement) 2. מחל (pardon). 

Regarding כפר, refer to our article on Parshat Teruma, wherein we dwelt at length on the numerous seemingly disparate meanings of the word. In short, Ibn Ezra explains כפרה to mean covering (although Rashi appears to disagree – see article for full analysis); according to which the sin is not “erased,” but is rather shielded from view.

The root מחל actually never appears in Scripture in the sense of forgiveness and atonement at all. However, its derivative מחילה is a very common word in the Talmudic vernacular. But our Sages have left hints as to the origin of this word, in the Midrashim. For example, Midrash Tan. (Shmini 6) states that although כפרה is provided in this world in conjunction with animal sacrifice, מחילה is granted after only death sans such sacrifice. However, the proof-text brought appears unconnected: I, yea I erase (מוחה) your transgressions for My sake (Is. 43:25). Note that the word מוחה quoted derives from the root מחה, whereas מחילה stems from the seemingly unrelated מחל! 

Two points may be gleaned from this anomaly immediately, however: 1. there is no Scriptural root מחל connected to pardon, as stated. 2. מחילה in Talmudic parlance  refers to the utter erasure, obliteration of sins (“absolution”; see also Midrash Tan. [ibid. 4]),  in contradistinction to כפרה which means covering, as above.

Despite the fact that מחה is found in the context of the pardoning of sin in the verse cited in Isaiah (and ibid. 44:22, Ps. 51:3, 11), the primary meaning (and the only meaning in the Pentateuch itself; vis. Gen. 6:7, Ex. 17:14, Deut. 9:14, 29:19) is clearly utter destruction. Since the word itself therefore bears ominous overtones, the Sages may have sought a similar term to refer exclusively to the erasure of sin. Additionally, the word מחילות in the sense of tunnels is used in Scripture (Is. 2:19) to describe a place of refuge. The combination of eradication of sin and refuge from G-d’s wrath is exactly what the potential penitent seeks, and this is precisely the mechanism of pardon conveyed by the word מחילה. 

We now return to the root סלח; given that the word certainly does not imply total absolution as we’ve seen, what then is the unique meaning of this word in the system of forgiveness?

Rabbi S. R. Hirsch (Num. 14:20) as per his wont, comments that סלח is phonetically related to שלח (dispatching) and צלח  (passing an obstacle / overcoming a challenge). סלח therefore means to proceed without delay. Hashem was in effect telling Moses that the nation must avoid getting stuck, must forge ahead spiritually, despite the momentous sins which had transpired. The nation was mired in the mud, was sinking fast in quicksand, and this was not the time to seek perfect absolution of sin. The road to obliteration of certain sins may be long and arduous, and may not even be completed in this lifetime. But the road to ultimate pardon begins with סליחה – “forge on”! 

The three roots סלח, כפר, מחל therefore would represent three different mechanisms, three stages of forgiveness and atonement. These stages could be compared to the stages of repentance described by Maimonides in his Laws of Repentance, beginning with acknowledging the sin and resolving never to repeat it, without which one is stuck, akin to the meaning of סלח described here. The next stage is כפרה, atonement which comes in stages, depending on the nature of the sin. Ultimate absolution –מחילה in Rabbinic parlance, as we have seen– for certain sins can be attained only in the World to Come.

May the Lord grant us strength to forge ahead from peak to pinnacle, to attain ever greater spiritual heights all the days of our lives.

1  [השוה גם: שמות רבה נא:ד; דברים רבה ה:יג, תנח’ וישלח י, תנח’ פקודי ב, תנח’ שלח (הוספה) יד].

2  [וכן]: שמלח:כא – אֵלֶּה פְקוּדֵי הַמִּשְׁכָּן; אורהחיים – לא נמחק עון העגל מחק שאין רשומו ניכר,.. וביום פקדי.

3  ספרא פרשת שמיני מכילתא דמילואים.

4  חשוקיחמדבכורות(הערותבכורותל🙂 – בנפש כל חי (מערכת נ אות יד) כתב נראה שהנסכים שהיו מנסכין ביין על הקרבנות הוא לכפר על עון המרגלים… ולכן אחר מעשה מרגלים סמוך ונראה (במ’ טו:ה-י) נצטוו על פ’ נסכים, וכן נראה ממהר”ם רקאנטי (פרשת שלח) שכתב וסמך פ’ נסכים לפ’ מרגלים, לפי שחטאו בזמורה.

5  [כמצוי בתפילות יו”כ ובסליחות במשך השנה. ובתלמוד]: ב”ב קכא. – יום הכפורים יום סליחה ומחילה יום שנתנו בו לוחות אחרונות.

6 Rather it means a tunnel or shelter; see Is. 2:19 + Malbim.

7  [אמנם כתב הערוך (ערך ‘חיל’), שגזרת ‘מחל’ היא ‘חיל’ המציין העברה, כגון: דאחילו… מן שמיא (ברכות יא:). ונראה להציע ש”אחילו” נגזרת מן ‘חל’ – לשון התחלה חדשה (כמו: החלו להעלות עלות – עזרא ג:ו), ושרש ‘מחל’ הוא שרש כפול: ‘מח’-‘חל’ – ‘מח’ (לשון ‘מחה’ / ‘מחק’) ו’חל’ (התחלה)].

8  [ברם, מצאנו לשון “מחילה” (בהשאלה) בתלמוד בעניני בין אדם לחבירו, כגון]: אבותו:א – הוי צנוע וארך רוח ומוחל על עלבונו.תרומותו:א – האוכל תרומה שוגג משלם קרן וחומש… אם רצה הכהן למחול אינו מוחל. [וכך גם הביטוי ביידיש: “מוחל זיין”].

9   תנחשמיניד – קְחוּ שְׂעִיר עִזִּים לְחַטָּאת וְעֵגֶל (וי’ ט:ג) – שידעו הכל שנתכפר להם על מעשה העגל. אמר הקב”ה, בעולם הזה נתכפר להם ע”י קרבן, ולעה”ב אני מוחה עונותיהם שלא בקרבן.

10  בחילוף אותיות זסשר”ץ. [השוה את פרשר”ה לבר’ כד:כא, תה’ כה:יא].

11  [פרטי ההלכות משתנות לפי הנסיבות כגון סוג העבירה, יחיד ורבים, בזמן שיש קרבנות מול זה”ז וכו’. לכן יש ללמוד את כולן בהרחבה ברמב”ם הלכות תשובה].

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Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg

Founding Director, Editor-In-Chief at Veromemanu
Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg is the Founding Director and Editor-in-chief of Veromemanu and it' website BiblicalHebrewEtymology.com.

Yehoshua is a retired U.S. Army Chaplain and currently lives in Israel with his wife and children.

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Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg