By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel
Agudath Israel of the Five Towns
And the B’nei Yisrael, the entire congregation, came to Midbar Tzin in the first month, and the people dwelt in Kaddesh and Miriam died there and was buried there.
Rashi comments on this verse: “‘The entire congregation.’ The ‘complete’ congregation, for those destined to die in the Midbar had already died, and those who remained were separated off for life” (Rashi ad loc.).
In other words, by the time Miriam died, all those who were included in the gezeiras misah—the decree of death resulting from the sin of the spies—had already died. Whoever remained alive at this time was “in the clear.”
The commentary attributed to Rashi at the end of Maseches Ta’anis (30b) quotes a lengthy braisa explaining exactly how the decree was carried out. Every year on erev Tishah B’Av an announcement was made instructing the people to dig graves for themselves and to go to sleep in them. Then the following morning those who were still alive knew that they had been spared for another year. This went on throughout the 40 years.
In the 40th year, however, a strange thing occurred. The same procedure was followed, but when morning came the people found that no one had died! At first they thought that perhaps they had gotten the date wrong, so they continued sleeping in the graves until the 15th of Av. By that time, however, the moon was full, so they now knew there could be no mistake—the remainder had been spared. According to Rabbi Yochanan, this is one of the reasons that Tu B’Av—the 15th of Av—is considered a joyous date on the Jewish calendar: “What is the significance of the Fifteenth of Av? . . . Rabbah bar bar Chanah said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, ‘It is the day that those destined to die in the Midbar ceased dying’” (Ta’anis 30b).
Now, we know that the decree of death applied specifically to those who were 20 years old and up at the time of the census conducted by Moshe and Aharon at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar. As a later passage in Bamidbar tells us: “And among these there was not one of those counted by Moshe and Aharon HaKohein, who counted the B’nei Yisrael in Midbar Sinai. For Hashem said to them, ‘You will surely die in the Midbar’” (Bamidbar 26:63–65).
But who were the people who dug graves for themselves that last year? If they were among those who were already 20 at the time of the decree, why did they not die? And if they were not that old at the time of the decree, why did they dig graves?
This question is strengthened by the fact that the Torah tells us in two places that the congregation was “complete,” once just before the death of Miriam (the pasuk quoted at the beginning of this piece) and again just before the death of Aharon (Bamidbar 20:22). In both cases, Rashi takes this to mean that all those included in the decree had already died. The trouble is that Miriam died in Nissan, while Aharon died on Rosh Chodesh Av, which means that both of them died before the last Tishah B’Av of the 40 years. So if all those included in the decree had already died, why did anyone dig graves?
The first point to realize before this question can be answered is that the decree was not only for cheit ha’meraglim, the sin of the spies, which took place in the second year after the exodus from Egypt, but also for cheit haEigel, the sin of the Calf, which took place in the first year. Rashi explains: “And the first year was included in the decree even though it preceded the sending of the meraglim, because from the moment they made the Calf it occurred to Hashem to make this decree, but He postponed it for them until their measure of sin was full” (Rashi, Bamidbar 14:33).
The second point to realize is that the people were counted twice when they came out of Egypt, once at the time of the construction of the Mishkan (Sh’mos 38:26) and again the following Iyar (Bamidbar 1:46). Although these two counts were conducted months apart, the total was exactly the same: 603,550. How could it be that in all that time no one came of age to be counted? Rashi explains in Sh’mos (30:16) that while the years of the Exodus are counted from the month of Nissan, the ages of people are always counted from Tishrei. That means that although one census took place before Nissan and the other after, both took place in the same “birthday year”; therefore, whoever had come of age by the previous Tishrei was included in both counts.
We must still recall, however, that cheit haEigel took place before that Tishrei, in the first Tammuz after the Exodus. That means that many of those counted in the census were not yet 20 at the time of cheit haEigel. Why, then, were they included in the decree?
Anne-Michele Eisenstein suggested an answer to our original question based on a point we made in Parashas Bamidbar. There, we noted that although sheivet Levi did not participate in cheit haEigel, if they had been counted with the rest of K’lal Yisrael in the census of Iyar, they too would have been included in the decree of death in the Midbar. They were excluded only because they were counted separately. From this we see that the gezeiras misah included an element of lo plug, a halachic principle meaning that decrees are sometimes made in a general way. In this instance, it means that the decree was not upon specific individuals, but upon K’lal Yisrael. It was a national calamity that included any and all members of the group. For the same reason, those who were 20 by the time of the census were included in the decree of the cheit ha’meraglim, because they were included as part of the k’lal, even though they had not yet come of age at the time of the first sin, the cheit haEigel.
There is one final piece of the picture that is needed before we can answer the question we started out with. Rashi tells us in Bamidbar (14:33) that none of the meisei Midbar—those who died in the desert—passed away before the age of 60. That is precisely why it was necessary for them to remain in the desert for 40 years—in order that all those who were 20 at the time of the decree would reach 60 before dying. And since 1/40th of those included in the decree died every year, this means that in the final year only the youngest of that generation were left.
With all these points in mind, we are now in a position to answer our question: Those who dug their graves that final Tishah B’Av were precisely those who were not yet 20 at the time of cheit haEigel, but had reached it by the Tishrei before the census. Therefore they were included in the decree of the cheit ha’meraglim, of which they took part, only because of their inclusion as a part of the nation.
Now, it is one thing to include people who are not strictly speaking culpable in a decree on the k’lal when they are a small percentage of the entire group, but it is quite another thing to include them when they are the entire k’lal! By the time the 40th year came around, they constituted a group unto themselves and now could be judged independently on their own particular and unique merits.
That final group dug graves for themselves because they knew that as part of the k’lal they had been included in the decree. But in the end, HaKadosh Baruch Hu had rachamim upon them and treated them as a separate unit. This enabled Him to spare them from death, since they had not participated in all of the Ten Trials with which K’lal Yisrael tested Hashem in the Midbar, which culminated with the cheit ha’meraglim.
We can now understand why the Torah tells us repeatedly even before the final Tishah B’Av that all who were included in the decree had already died. It is because that was in fact the case. v
Rabbi Frankel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now in print: Machat shel Yad.