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After Hashem chastised the Jews for not wanting to go into Eretz Yisrael, and told them that they will have to die in the desert, the Jews seemed to have had a change of heart. A few even were willing to go there at the risk of death and without guaranteed miraculous success.

Why didn't Hashem accept their Teshuva?

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

Ohr Hachaim (Deut. 1:43,45) says that indeed they hadn't done teshuvah at that point; they swung into action - trying to go up the mountain and push their way into Eretz Yisrael - without having first asked Hashem for forgiveness. Only after they were beaten did they cry to Hashem (1:45), but by then their sin had been compounded so severely (גדלה צחנתם, lit. "their stink was so great") that teshuvah was not enough.

Ramban and Sforno (1:45) add that this was an edict of Hashem that was accompanied by an oath (גזר דין שיש עמו שבועה), which is more unalterable (Rosh Hashanah 18a). Sforno (there and to Num. 13:2) also points out that the sin of the Jewish people involved chillul Hashem (in that they claimed that He lacked the power to help them conquer the Land), and as the Gemara (Yoma 86a) notes, only the offender's death (after having done teshuvah) fully atones for that.

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Here's my own idea:

The nation's sin was to use their own judgement of the land, rather than follow what Hashem said. After the decree, they again followed their own judgement, ignoring Hashem's command not to ascend. This showed that their teshuva was flawed, since a main part of teshuva is being in the same situation, and behaving differently (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:1).

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It wasn't a punishment, but a test by Hashem to show them that they weren't on the level yet to enter Eretz Yisrael. Only the new generation that hadn't been slaves could conquer the land. But the old generation really wanted to, but needed to be convinced. Why we suffer from this chet up to this day is another discussion.

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