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Parashat 06/04/2010

Parashat Shelach
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

I’d like to look at two small points in this week’s Parashah that I believe have large implications for both our history and our future as a people.  They both have to do with our rôle in the history of Creation and therefore our relationship with the Creator, and they are directly applicable to the burning, existential questions we as a people are facing today.

One of the things Moshe Rabbeinu instructed the spies to look for in reconnoitering the Land was “Are there any trees?” (13:20)  Now Gd had told the Israelites that the Land was “flowing with milk and honey” and “honey” in Biblical context actually refers to date honey (honey from bees is specified as “bee honey” the way we specify “date honey”), so clearly there must have been trees.  Rashi explains that what Moshe really wanted to know was “Is there any righteous person (adam kasher) who protects them?”

This is rather a different take on national defense than the one we’re used to!  Yet if we look carefully at even the fortunes of war among the other nations of the world, we can see that in fact the level of morale among the population and certainly of the armed forces of that nation is quite determinative in the outcome of armed conflicts.  For example: A hopelessly outgunned Jewish yishuv in 1948 defeated 4 vastly larger, better equipped Arab armies.  (When asked how, the standard Israeli response was ayn b’reirah – “no choice”!)  The withdrawal of the US from Vietnam, despite having overwhelming firepower, is testimony not only to the cohesion of the N. Vietnamese forces, but the lack of cohesion of US society behind the war effort.  Our own rag-tag Continental Army’s defeat of the British in our War of Independence is another example.  Rome was not finally defeated so much by the strength of its opponents as by the rot from within its own society.

Today the State of Israel, and the Jewish people as a whole, once again find ourselves in a precarious international situation.  As usual we are surrounded by enemies, only now they are armed with a large array of stand-off weaponry.  Iran is a long way from Israel and has the ability to put a satellite in orbit.  If left alone it will soon have nuclear weapons.  The current US administration has already demonstrated an unprecedented level of hostility to Israel and is trying to impose a “solution” to the problems in the region that will leave Israel greatly weakened.  Even worse, this openly expressed hostility has emboldened others to call for action against Israel that would have been unheard of even a decade ago (Google for “Nick Clegg”).  Clearly there is no “natural” solution to Israel’s problems.

The solution that our people has turned to time and again in such circumstances has been prayer – that is, reconnection with the infinite source of creation.  At this level, which transcends nature, a solution will materialize.  How effective and complete that solution is will depend on the level of our prayers – that is, how well we can transcend our individuality and connect ourselves to the infinite.

After the spies had completely demoralized the nation with their slanderous report on the Land, Gd tells Moshe Rabbeinu that he wanted to destroy the people completely and make a greater nation from Moshe’s descendents.  This is similar to Gd’s reaction after the sin of the golden calf, and Moshe’s prayer also has similar themes.  Perhaps the major theme is simply that it is not in Gd’s best interests to destroy Israel!  In other words, Moshe does not argue extenuating circumstances, or lack of intention to sin.  In fact, in the case of the spies one couldn’t even blame the “mixed multitude” (erev rav) of non-Jews who went out of Egypt with the Jews!  Instead of trying to justify the unjustifiable, Moshe pointed out that the proposed consequences would desecrate Gd’s Name in the eyes of the nations of the world.  They would say that Gd was unable to bring Israel into the Land, therefore He killed them off.  Absurd perhaps, but in the words of the poet, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

This issue of desecration of Gd’s Name (chillul haShem) goes directly to the purpose of the Jewish people, and ultimately to the purpose of Creation.  We must always remember that Gd is complete Unity, completely self-sufficient, completely infinite.  Gd has no need of Creation, yet we see Creation exists.  Why?  Ultimately this is perhaps beyond our comprehension, but our tradition tells us that Gd desired to have creatures that would, through the action of their free will, come to know Gd.  This phenomenon of a Gd-created being knowing Gd, means that Gd is, through us, coming into a deeper and fuller relationship with Himself, and this, as it were, is fulfilling to Gd.

But this whole creation is not worth anything without our free will.  A robot, who cannot make moral choices, cannot come to know Gd.  On the other hand, a being with free will can, by definition, misuse that free will, and indeed, this is what happened in the incidents of the golden calf and the spies.  Perhaps Moshe’s argument to Gd is along the lines of: “Don’t let the world say that You couldn’t bring Israel into the Land, because that would be tantamount to saying that you gave human beings free will and then didn’t let them use it.  This would mean that the whole experiment of Creation is a failure, and You will never be able to accomplish what You set out to do when You created!”

Note that many of our prayers are stated in the same vein.  In the paragraph at the end of the amidah (Elokai n’tzor) we say: “Do it for Your Name’s sake…” and in tachanun and avinu malkeinu we say (paraphrasing) “… if not for our sake, have mercy on us for the sake of Your Name…”  Ultimately we must always recognize that Gd is infinite and we are finite, and even the reward that we “earn” is only given to us because it is Gd’s Will to allow us the opportunity to earn reward, so that the world may become a more perfect reflector of Gd’s own nature.

From our Parashah and from our history we learn what it takes to continue to exist: it takes righteousness, that is, conformance with Gd’s instructions for living as embodied in the Torah.  When that righteousness is absent, even a sacred Temple can be destroyed and the people exiled and the Land left desolate.  The Three Weeks between the fast of the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av will be here in just a few more weeks; we would do well to take that time to contemplate how that message applies to us, for it definitely applies to us in many ways.  But if we adjust our behavior and thinking, then we can trust Gd to provide solutions to our most intractable problems.

Pirke Avot, chapter 3

Mishnah 11

R. Chanina ben Dosa says:

If a person’s fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom will endure.  But if a person’s wisdom precedes his fear of sin, his wisdom will not endure.

We all know not to put our hand in a fire.  There are unpleasant consequences if we ignore our instincts in this matter.  Unfortunately we are not so instinctively afraid to do that which is contrary to the Will of our Creator; in fact, we all seem to walk around with our pain receptors in this area completely anesthetized!  R. Chanina ben Dosa was a great saint, who was able to move Heaven and Earth with his prayers, but he is not quoted so often in the Talmud along with the other Tannaim who debated fine points of law.  His fear of sin, his instinctive repulsion from incorrect thinking or behavior, was primary, and his academic attainment was secondary.  A wise man once said “knowledge in books stays in the books – it’s never there when you need it.”  When pure knowledge is lively in one’s awareness, one’s instincts are always completely in accord with Gd’s Will, and intellectual understanding can then be had through self-reflection.  But when our wisdom is all “in the books,” it is all too readily forgotten, and certainly has limited ability to guide our behavior.