Compassion for Sinners

Vayanicheihu oso ba’mishmar ki lo porash mah yei’aseh lo (Bamidbar 15:34)

Parashas Emor concludes with a tragic episode in which a man cursed and blasphemed Hashem. Initially, Moshe did not know the appropriate punishment for this sin, so the blasphemer was placed in jail while they awaited clarification from Hashem regarding his sentence. Rashi (Vayikra 24:12) explains that even though this incident occurred in the same period of time as the episode of the wood-gatherer (Bamidbar 15:32–36), the blasphemer was not placed in a jail cell together with him, but rather was incarcerated by himself. Why, indeed, were they not placed together?

In his sefer Ikvei Erev, Harav Azriel Lankeh explains that Rashi writes that at that time, it was still unknown whether the blasphemer was liable to the death penalty altogether. In contrast, they already knew that the man who gathered wood on Shabbos was going to be put to death (Shemos 31:14), and Moshe was merely waiting for Hashem to tell him which form of execution to use. Accordingly, if they put the blasphemer in the same cell as the wood-gatherer, it would be tantamount to placing him on “death row” prematurely, which would cause him needless anguish and anxiety. Until Hashem informed Moshe that the blasphemer was indeed to be put to death, it would have been cruel to treat him like somebody whose death sentence has already been determined, and therefore he was confined separately.

Harav Yissocher Frand adds that the sensitivity displayed by the Torah is astonishing when we realize that the person in question was not an upstanding member of society, or even a run-of-the-mill sinner, but rather a person who committed the reprehensible sin of cursing Hashem’s name. In contrast to other sins that are motivated by momentary lusts and desires, this action gave no personal pleasure or benefit, and represented a premeditated rebellion against Hashem.

If we were in charge of deciding the fate of such an evil person, we would be inclined to show him no mercy or compassion, placing him in jail to rot with no concern for his emotional state. However, Moshe understood that, ultimately, the blasphemer was still a Jew and, as such, had to be treated with sensitivity. Because his punishment was not yet known, it was forbidden to cause him any unnecessary suffering by treating him in a manner which could lead him to conclude that he had already been condemned to death, when that was not the case. If the Torah shows so much concern for the psychological welfare of a person who blasphemed Hashem, how much more so must we be considerate and understanding of the feelings of every Jew with whom we interact.

Q: Prior to sending the spies, Moshe changed Hoshea’s name to Yehoshua (13:16). The Gemara in Sotah (34b) interprets this as a blessing and prayer that Hashem should save him from the evil plan of the other spies. Why did he specifically bless Yehoshua more than Calev or any of the other spies?

Q: Moshe instructed the spies (13:20) to bring back fruits from the Land of Israel. As the fruits didn’t belong to them, why wasn’t it considered stealing from the non-Jewish inhabitants and forbidden to do so?

A: The Maharal explains that Moshe was specifically concerned about the behavior of his close student Yehoshua, as, if he sinned, people would associate it with Moshe and it would reflect badly on him. The Kehillas Yitzchak questions this explanation, as Moshe cared equally for every Jew and if he had the slightest concern that any of them might sin, he wouldn’t have hesitated to bless all of them. Instead, he suggests that Moshe consulted with Hashem about the appointment of each of the spies and knew each of them to be great men, and he trusted that even if they were tempted to slander the Land of Israel, they would overcome the temptation even without his blessing. However, Moshe was specifically concerned that Yehoshua may not pass the test because when Eldad and Meidad prophesied that Moshe would die and Yehoshua would lead the people into the Land of Israel, Yehoshua became upset by this prospect and urged Moshe to destroy them (11:28). Moshe was therefore concerned that Yehoshua may be willing to slander the Land of Israel in order to delay their entrance into it in an attempt to prevent Moshe from dying, so Moshe specifically blessed him that he should stay strong and be saved from doing so.

A: Harav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita, suggests that Hashem gave them permission to take the fruits on a one-time basis. However, he notes that the Midrash teaches that the wine-libations brought in the wilderness came from the grapes brought back by the spies, and he notes that even if they were given permission to bring back the fruits, it is unclear whether the fruits legally belonged to them so that they could be used as offerings in the Mishkan. The M’rafsin Igri quotes the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 53b) which teaches that the Land of Israel is legally considered an inheritance to us from the Avos, in which case the spies were entitled to take its fruits even before the Jews had entered and conquered the land. Alternatively, Harav Yehudah Assad suggests that when Moshe told the spies v’lakachtem mi’pri ha’aretz, he wasn’t telling them to take the fruits, but to purchase them from their rightful owners.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email