Every time we recite Selichot, the prayers for forgiveness and mercy that we say before the Yamim Nora’im and on fast days, we constantly repeat one phrase from Parshat Shelach (14:20): “Vayomer Hashem Salachti KiDvarecha,” “And Hashem said, ‘I have forgiven according to your words.’” At first glance, it seems that we are mentioning a time when Hashem forgave our sins in the past to beg He repeat this forgiveness for our sins today. However, when we look at the situation in Shelach, it is not so clear that this is the model case of complete forgiveness. Bnei Yisrael, who had sinned by believing the spies’ derogatory report about the land of Israel and refusing to go fight for it, were still punished even after this “forgiveness” – they were forbidden to enter the land of Israel (14:23). Were they really forgiven, as Pasuk 20 states, or were they not forgiven, as it seems from Pasuk 23?
The Ramban answers that they were partially forgiven for their sin, in that their children were allowed to inherit the land and were not annihilated in a plague, as Hashem had threatened earlier (Pasuk 12). The reason for this partial forgiveness, claims the Ramban, is that Moshe Rabbeinu only prayed for them with a partial prayer. Moshe did not pray for a full abolishment of their sins, but rather for Hashem to cleanse them of their sins through a gradual punishment, instead of wiping them out instantly in His fury. Thus, even though the prayer was accepted, their sins remained, not yet fully erased, until they were punished. The Ramban proves this from Moshe’s retelling of the story of the spies in Perek 1 of Devarim, where he rebukes Bnei Yisrael for fearing to enter the land, but does not mention his personal prayer that Hashem forgive them. This shows that the prayer was not significant enough to be recounted, as it was only a prayer that Hashem reduce their punishment, not that He forgive them completely. In contrast, Moshe’s prayer regarding the golden calf is actually recounted elsewhere in Devarim (Perek 9). Apparently, Moshe recorded only full-fledged prayers, but not partial ones.
Although this Ramban fits well with the Pesukim and appears logical, it raises a perplexing question: why would Moshe Rabbeinu pray for Bnei Yisrael more completely in the episode of the golden calf than in that of the spies? To answer this question, we must first explain the Ramban’s understanding of the sin with the golden calf.
When Moshe heard that Bnei Yisrael had sinned by worshipping the calf, he immediately begged Hashem to reconsider His decision to destroy Bnei Yisrael in anger (Shemot 32:11). Though Hashem answered Moshe’s request in the affirmative, He was merely promising to refrain from lashing out at the nation in anger, as the Torah writes (32:14), “And Hashem reconsidered regarding the evil which He had said He would do to His people.” He did not, however, fully remove the sin (Ramban to Shemot 32:11). Later, when Moshe went back up to the mountain to pray for Bnei Yisrael a second time (32:31), he was asking Hashem to absolve Bnei Yisrael completely of their sin, which explains why that story is recounted in Devarim.
The strange thing about this request, though, is that it was never explicitly accepted. When Moshe pleaded that Hashem either forgive Bnei Yisrael or erase Moshe’s name from the Torah (32:32), Hashem merely responded, “[Only] he who has sinned towards me will have his name removed from My book” (32:33), implying that Moshe, who did not sin, would not be punished with having his name removed (Ramban to Shemot 32:32). Bnei Yisrael, however, were not forgiven (at this point of the aftermath of the Cheit HaEigel), since only the sinner himself can fully repent his actions – no one, not even Moshe, can repent for the sins of another.
If this is the case, we can now understand why Moshe did not pray for a full forgiveness at the sin of the spies. He already learned from experience with the calf incident that Hashem would not accept such a prayer. Instead, he prayed only that Hashem spread out their punishment over time, so that they would not be wiped out immediately. Moshe knew that Hashem would accept this prayer, since He had accepted Moshe’s first prayer regarding the golden calf, in which he had similarly asked that Hashem refrain from killing Bnei Yisrael instantly.
The problem with this answer is that it assumes that no one can ever become completely forgiven due to someone else’s penitence or prayer. While this assumption holds true in the incident of the golden calf, it seems to fail in the book of Iyov. This book is the story of a very rich, God-fearing man who, tragically, loses all his money and watches all his many children die. In his misery, Iyov starts believing that he must be more righteous than Hashem, Who appears to be punishing him for nothing, but his friends, furious at this suggestion, insist that Hashem must be punishing him for sinning. By the end of the book, Iyov finally admits that he can not complain against Hashem, and Hashem, in turn, rebukes Iyov’s friends for falsely accusing Iyov of sin instead of comforting him for his losses. He commands them to bring sacrifices, and tells Iyov to pray for them so that He can refrain from giving them a harsh punishment. If golden calf incident teaches us that such a prayer can never be fully accepted, why is Iyov told to pray for his friends’ forgiveness?
The simplest way to answer this question is to say that Iyov’s prayer for his friends is not a prayer that Hashem forgive them completely, but rather a request that he refrain from punishing them immediately so they will have time to repent. This answer would fit well with the current premise that such a prayer could be accepted. In addition, the Tanach does not elaborate on what kind of prayer Iyov prayed, so it is reasonable to say that it was only a prayer for forestalling punishment. If this is the case, however, it would seem that Iyov’s friends were never actually forgiven completely. Although there is nothing in the Pesukim which contradicts this notion, Rashi (to Iyov 42:8) states that the sacrifices which Iyov’s friends bring, along with Iyov’s prayer for them, will be able to bring about forgiveness for their sins and to permanently prevent Hashem from recalling their sins. How does this Rashi jive with our current understanding that a combination of punishment and prayer is necessary to achieve forgiveness?
We must therefore say instead that it was the sacrifices which Iyov’s friends brought which enabled Iyov’s prayer to be fully accepted by Hashem. Indeed, this concept appears to be at work in Perek 4 of Vayikra, where the whole nation, prince and common man, received forgiveness for their sins as a result of their sacrifices and Aharon’s prayer for them. It was only the Kohen who was required to pray to enable his Korban to effect forgiveness (Ramban to Vayikra 4:11), but the rest of the people’s Korbanot brought atonement by virtue of the priest’s prayer alone. Thus, one person’s prayer can enable the sacrifices of another to achieve forgiveness.
However, the Ramban’s assertion that only the Kohen had to pray seems to contradict a parenthetical comment that he quotes from the Ibn Ezra on our original Pasuk from Shelach (14:20). He compares Moshe’s prayer for Bnei Yisrael after the Cheit HaEigel to the Korban that the Kohen Gadol brought in Vayikra, stating that both did not bring forgiveness “until [the sinner did] complete Teshuvah.” This sentiment is also echoed in Yeshayahu (1:11), where Hashem rejects Bnei Yisrael’s sacrifices and urges them to do Teshuvah and turn away from their evil actions instead. How could Aharon’s Korban have enabled forgiveness for others, as Iyov’s prayers did, if forgiveness could only come to Bnei Yisrael with penitence? Furthermore, why would Iyov’s friends not have to do Teshuvah, as Bnei Yisrael did in all the cases we have seen?
The answer to these questions appears in the Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuvah, Laws of Repentance (1:6). In describing the various types of sins and the Teshuvah process for each, the Rambam mentions that the procedure through which the Kohen Gadol atones for all of Bnei Yisrael on Yom Kippur atones only for the “light” sins (i.e. those not punishable by death or Kareit). The Kohen Gadol’s sacrifice can only atone for “heavy” sins, however, if the sinner does Teshuvah, as well. This explains why Moshe was never able to bring forgiveness upon all of Bnei Yisrael: since, in the cases discussed above, the nation deserved the death penalty, Bnei Yisrael could be forgiven only with Teshuvah, so they deserved punishment even after Moshe’s prayers. In the case of Iyov’s friends, on the other hand, the combination of sacrifices and prayer was enough to bring total forgiveness, since their sin (unfairly accusing Iyov) did not incur the death penalty, and no Teshuvah was technically required.