Sins of Teenagers
Do they Count?
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In the Torah portion of Chukat we read about the Jewish people nearing the land of Israel after wandering in the desert for 40 years. During their 40-year sojourn, an entire generation of men – those who were 20 years or older at the time of the sins of the spies and the Golden Calf – died. (See Number 14:29 “In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop. Of all of you who were counted and listed from the age of twenty years up, you who have muttered against Me.”) The only exceptions were the tribe of the Levites [which included the Kohanim] (see Bava Batra 121b) and Kalev and Yehoshua, the two spies who had given a good report about the land. (See ibid, verse 30 “except for Kalev, son of Yefunah, and Yehoshua, son of Nun.”) The women, who were not counted in any of the censuses nor had they sinned in the above sins, were also spared. (See Kli Yakar on Bamidbar 26:54.)
The people who were preparing to enter the land were either under 20 at the time of the Exodus or were the children (and grandchildren) of the generation that had left Egypt,
as the verse says (Numbers 20:1), וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִ֠שְׂרָאֵ֠ל כָּל־הָ֨עֵדָ֤ה מִדְבַּר־צִן֙ בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן The entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the desert of Zin. Rashi comments, “‘The entire congregation,’ for the ones destined to die in the desert had already died, and these were assigned for life.”
The source of this Rashi seems to be Midrash Esfa (cited in Torah Shleima) which says
“‘The entire congregation’ – this is what Yehoshua said (Joshua 5:7) ‘And I established their sons in their place.’ This is why it says ‘the entire congregation’ because the decree was made regarding those who left Egypt that they should die from the age of 20 and up. These all died at once (at the end of every year), and they (the younger ones) entered the land immediately (i.e., as soon as the decree was over). This generation was… neither old nor (exceptionally) strong. The oldest among them were 19 (at the time of the Exodus). He (G-d) exacted His debt over 40 years. Each year corresponded to one day [paralleling the 40 days that the spies scouted the land]. During this time, the older generation died out and the younger generation replaced them. The oldest among them was 60 years old… All of the tribal leaders who had left Egypt had passed away and these were their grandchildren who had replaced them, as it says ‘The entire congregation.’”
At Ahron’s Passing
It is noteworthy that Rashi repeats this same idea regarding the passing of Aharon, which is also in this week’s Torah portion though it took place several months later. The verse says (Numbers 20:22,) וַיִּסְע֖וּ מִקָּדֵ֑שׁ וַיָּבֹ֧אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל כָּל־הָֽעֵדָ֖ה הֹ֥ר הָהָֽר – “They traveled from Kadesh, and the entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at Mount Hor.” Rashi comments on this, “All were perfect, ready to enter the Land. There was not among them even one of those upon whom the decree had been pronounced, for all those destined to die in the desert had already perished, and these were of those about whom it is written, ‘You… are all alive this day’ (Deut. 4:4).” This Rashi is based on Bamidbar Rabbah 19:16.
The commentaries wonder why the same teaching is repeated. In fact, the Ramban (on verse 1) rejects Rashi’s interpretation (on verse 1) for this reason.
In support of Rashi’s interpretation, several commentaries offer explanations as to why both of these verses are necessary.
- No One was Killed in the Battle with Edom
The Ibn Ezra (on verse 22) explains that the Torah repeats the expression “the entire community” before the passing of Aharon in order to allude to the fact that no Jews were killed when they had a confrontation with the Edomites who had refused to allow them free passage through their land. (But see Ramban who questions the necessity for this teaching in light of the fact that there was no actual war with the Edomites.)
- Only Moshe and G-d Knew
The Malbim explains that at the time of the passing of Miriam, the people did not yet realize that the decree was over, as the Midrash says (quoted in Tosfot D.H. Yom on Ta’anit 30b) that it was only on the 15th of Av of the final year that the Jewish people realized that the decree was over. So, at the time of Miriam’s passing, only G-d and Moshe knew that the decree was over. (We see that Moshe knew it from the fact that he sent messengers to the King of Edom asking for free passage through his land (Numbers 20:14), for he knew that it was time to enter the land of Canaan.)
The Torah repeats that the decree was over at the time of Aharon’s passing because soon after that is when it became known that all of those destined to die had already perished. (Aharon passed away on the first of Av [Numbers 33:38], and the people became aware on the 15th of Av that the decree had ended.)
- Yearning or Cleaving?
The Chatam Sofer (Al HaTorah, verse 1) points out that there are three expressions of dveikut (cleaving) to G-d:
חפיצה – Desired This is the highest level, and it means that we are desired by G-d, as the prophet (Malachi 3:12) says, “For you shall be a desirable land, says the L-rd.”
חשיקה – Yearning
דביקות – Cleaving The Talmud (Sanhedrin 64a) says (according to one opinion) that דביקות is an inferior connection. It is compared to two dates which are lightly pressed to each other but can easily be detached. The verse compares this third level (דביקות) to daytime, as it says (Deut. 4:4), וְאַתֶּם֙ הַדְּבֵקִ֔ים בּה׳ אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם חַיִּ֥ים כֻּלְּכֶ֖ם הַיּֽוֹם “You who cleave to the L-rd, your G-d, are all alive today.” The expression הַיּֽוֹם (today) alludes to the fact that the person has ups and downs just like the day which has times of light and of darkness. (See Rashi on Deut. 29:12 who says כיום הזה שהוא קיים והוא מאפיל ומאיר, כך האיר לכם וכך עתיד להאיר לכם – Just as this day exists. For, although it becomes dark for a period, nevertheless it shines again. So too, here, G-d has made light for you, and so, too, will He again make light for you in the future.)
At the time of Miriam’s passing, the Jewish people were on a higher level of cleaving to G-d as they expected to go into the land with Moshe and build an eternal resting place for the shechinah. This is why they are called (by Rashi) “a complete congregation,” i.e., complete in terms of holiness.
Whereas by the time Aharon passed away only a few months later, it had already been decreed that Moshe would not enter the land. This meant that the Bait HaMikdash which would be built would not be everlasting. As such their yearning to enter the land was not as intense as it had been a few months earlier since they knew that the level they would achieve in Israel was far from ideal. This is why Rashi describes the nation at the time of Ahraron’s passing as people… “about whom it is written, ‘you… are all alive this day.’” This indicates that their deveikut was like the day, i.e., not constant.
(It is not clear to me how the verse itself alludes to this difference as both verses use the exact same words וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כׇּל הָעֵדָה.)
The rest of this article will address the issue of whether people under the age of 20 are liable for Heavenly punishment for their sins.
As mentioned above, the Jewish men who were not yet 20 at the time of the sins of the generation of the desert did not die in the desert but lived to enter the land of Israel. The reason for this is that, although the human (Jewish) court punishes for sins from the age of 12 (for girls) or 13 (for boys), the Heavenly court does not punish young people until they reach the age of 20.
Despite the fact that there are various sources in the writings of our sages that support this notion, there are also several commentaries who limit the application of this rule to specific situations as explained below.
Here are some of the sources that state that the Heavenly Court does not punish for sins committed before the age of 20.
The Holy Zohar
The Zohar (Bereishit 118b) explains that the reason that G-d did not kill Yishmael when he was wandering with his mother Hagar (see Gen. chapter 21) is because he was under the age of 20. So although he had committed several sins he was spared from death due to his youth.
The Talmud (Shabbat 89b) recounts how Yitzchak, our Patriarch, will defend us from our sins in the Messianic era. One of his arguments will be that one does not get punished (by G-d) for sins committed when he is not yet 20 years old. When we deduct the sins of those years (as well as other sins, see there) we will be found to be righteous.
The Jerusalem Talmud
The Jerusalem Talmud (Bikkurim 2:1, 6b page 11b in the Artscroll Mesorah Jerusalem Talmud) says explicitly, “The Heavenly Court does not punish for the first 20 years of one’s life.”
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:4) says that the heavenly Court does not punish before the age of 20.
An Oral Tradition
The Rambam writes (Pirush HaMishnayon, Sanhedrin 7:4) that the sages had an oral tradition that the heavenly Court does not punish anyone under the age of 20.
The Talmud in Pesachim 93a and b seems to indicate that a 13-year-old boy can be liable for the punishment of Karet (which is “administered” by the Heavenly court). This seems to contradict the above teachings.
Depends on the Sin
The Maharal (Gur Aryeh, Bereishit 5:32) explains that if there is a fixed punishment in the Torah for certain sins, they can be administered even by the Heavenly Court to people under the age of 20. This explains why Er and Onan (the sons of Yehudah) were punished with an early death for wasting seed even though they were quite young. (See Gen. 38: 5-10. The entire story of Yehudah and his sons occurred during the 22 years that Yosef was separated from his brothers. So, at the time that Er and Onan died, they had to have been under the age of 20.)
It is only unusual punishments, which are decided on a case-by-case basis by the Heavenly Court, that are not administered to people under the age of 20.
Similarly the Chatam Sofer (Responsa Yoreh De’ah 155) writes that the rule of not being punished by the Heavenly Court before the age of 20 applies only to specific exceptional punishments (such as the death in the desert) but not to the standard punishments of the Torah. Similarly, the Chavot Ya’ir (Responsa 166) writes that any punishment that is dictated by logic and is not explicit in the Torah applies to everyone over the age of bar or bat mitzvah.
A Delayed Punishment
The Chacham Tzvi (Responsa 49) writes that it is possible that, although the Heavenly Court does not punish in this world until the age of 20, the punishment is “saved” for those individuals until they pass away and they are then punished in the Next World.
In addition, he writes, it is possible that people who sin before the age of 20 are only exempt from punishment in this world until they turn 20. If they do not do teshuvah by that time, however, they can be punished in this world. This explains why one who commits an unwitting sin before the age of 20 which would normally be punished by karet (a punishment meted out by the Heavenly Court) if transgressed wantonly, must bring a chatat sacrifice. Although if they had committed this sin purposefully they would not get karet (at this time), they still need atonement if they transgress accidentally. The reason for this is that the sins committed at this age are deserving of punishment, albeit a delayed punishment, and therefore need atonement.
Exceptions for Exceptional People
The Tosfot on the Torah (Gen. 38:10 quoted in the metivta Shas, Bi’urim on Shabbat ibid) says that a young person who is exceptionally smart can be punishable by the Heavenly Court even before he turns 20. This would explain why the sons of Yehudah were liable even though they were young.
May Hashem Grant Wisdom to All of the Jewish People So We Serve Him with Sincerity!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!
Copyright 2021 by Rabbi Aryeh Citron