On the shores of Israel’s Mediterranean coast lies a defunct detention camp that now serves as a museum of the legacy of the Ma’apilim. These were the immigrants who, in spite of Britain’s strict limitations on Jewish immigration from 1934 until 1948, came to Israel, often in old, damaged boats.
One of the ships carrying hopeful immigrants was called Hama’apilim, hence the name for the entire movement.
The story of the first ma’apilim appears in the Torah (Numbers 14:39-45). After Moses announces the punishment for the sin of the spies, that the generation who left Egypt will have to spend 40 years in the desert and will never enter the Land, some people declare that they will go up to Israel anyway. Moses warns them against it as God will not be behind them.
But they go anyway and are completely wiped out by local tribes. Their premature attempt to enter Israel is described by the word vaya’apilu, a word deriving from ofel, which means a fort or tower, whose verb form connotes some type of fortitude.
Commentators are divided on the exact meaning of vaya’apliu. Onkelos defines it as a type of deliberate sinfulness, while Rashi slightly softens the negative verdict with his definition of hardness and strength. In his dictionary, Ben Yehuda defines it as bravery.
This case is a perfect example how the definition of one word reveals a commentator’s perspective on an entire biblical episode.