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Parashat Shelach 5774 — 06/11/2014

Parashat Shelach 5774 — 06/11/2014

Moshe called Hoshea bin Nun, Yehoshua. (Bamidbar 13:16)

The commentators ask several questions on this incident.  Of the 12 spies who were sent out, two remained loyal to Gd: Yehoshua, Moshe’s primary disciple (and future successor as Israel’s leader), and Calev ben Yefuneh of the tribe of Yehudah, who eventually was granted as his inheritance the city of Hebron.  Why did Moshe Rabbeinu give a blessing only to Yehoshua, that he be saved from falling prey to the other spies?  Furthermore, why is only Calev is recorded as having prayed in Hebron, at the Cave of Machpelah where Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Leah are buried, for strength in resisting the other spies?  Couldn’t Calev have used Moshe’s blessing for protection?  Wouldn’t Yehoshua have been well served praying for Divine guidance?

As part of a long passage the Chafetz Chaim gives an answer:

It turns out that one basic principle explains everything. There are two paths in avodas Hashem: When people with mistaken ideas gain the upper hand, and a man who serves Hashem must be in their company for a few weeks, he can successfully deal with this challenge in one of two ways. One way is to publicly declare what is right and true, and battle his errant brethren, to show them the folly of their misguided ways. Alternatively, one simply keeps quiet, and while in private with them, makes it appear that perhaps he even agrees with them. When he comes into the company of the general community, however, he reveals what he really thinks. He speaks up, opposing the evil and exposing its faults and errors to all of K’lal Yisrael.

   Each course of action has its pluses and minuses. As to the first approach, there is no worry that the servant of Hashem will find his conviction growing weak, for he is always on the offensive, battling for the truth. In contrast, the servant of Hashem who adopts the second approach – seeming to go along with his errant brethren – might be influenced by some of the false views and philosophy. …

   On the other hand, if one takes the first approach, and exposes himself as an adversary, the group may try to attack him and cause him harm. He will need Hashem’s mercy to be saved from them. The individual who takes the second approach does not have this problem, for the others think that he agrees with them and they are even proud that he is siding with them … .

First of all, I’d like to note that “resist not evil” is not one of the paths that the Chafetz Chaim lays out.  In Jewish thought we cannot just let evil slide; the only question is how best to resist it.  The Chafetz Chaim describes two paths: direct confrontation (Yehoshua) and stealth undermining (Calev).  Over the past two millennia there has been a third approach that some have tried: isolation from the blandishments of the outside world.  While this may be effective against external threats, it is of course useless against one’s own “inner evil.”  Some of the recent sexual abuse scandals in some of these isolationist groups illustrate this point.

I think these ways of resisting evil are parallel to the different ways we can serve Gd in a positive sense.  One approach, that of Avraham, is to go out and teach actively.  Avraham used his giving, outgoing nature to engage with the idolatrous world and persuade it, both by word and deed, that his way was a better way.  Yitzchak, on the other hand, took a more inward approach.  He consolidated what his father had accomplished (“re-dug the wells his father had dug and gave them the same names”).  Although he did not totally isolate himself from the outside world, outreach was certainly not his specialty.

As the Chafetz Chaim points out, each of these approaches has its advantages and its drawbacks.  The outward approach has the obvious advantage of engaging many people, but one runs the risk of stretching too thin the “umbilical cord” that keeps one connected with Gd.  If that cord should snap, the basis of one’s outreach is gone – indeed one’s whole life is left in shambles.  The more inward approach avoids the problem of losing connection with Gd, but it leaves us focused on our own life, working on our own inner development, and therefore with less time and energy to devote towards improving our environment.

I should emphasize that the association between the outward, expansive direction and Avraham, and the inward, consolidating direction with Yitzchak, is meant on the archetypal level, and is not meant to imply any imbalance in the actual personalities of these great founders of our people.  Nobody can exist in either a purely inward or a purely outward direction.  However, each of us does have a tendency in one or the other direction; it is the predominance of one or the other that we find in Avraham and Yitzchak.

We find this cycle of expansion and contraction on virtually every level of creation.  Our esoteric tradition teaches that this cycle is in fact fundamental to creation.  Gd first “contracts” within Himself to “leave space” for the finite, then radiates His effulgence into that space.  We have business cycles of expansion and contraction.  Empires rise and fall.  Sukkot comes with its abundance, followed by winter with its “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.”  We find the same cycle in our own awareness every day – we wake up refreshed, with our consciousness expanded, ready to take on a new day, and we contract at night to a state of complete inertia in deep sleep.

I think what this tells us is that we need to integrate both an outward, engaged, other-directed side of our personality with an inward, hidden, Self-directed side.  We need to live every day of our lives in teshuvah, return to closeness with Gd, while at the same time infusing the Gdliness we gain into the external world.  Our Jewish calendar, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, provides us with opportunities to do this at every level.  If we make best use of those opportunities we can have the best of both worlds, inner and outer, just as Gd designed us!

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 8: Israel at Fifty (13 October, 1998)

There’s an old joke: A tourist goes to Israel.  As he’s leaving he’s asked how he liked the country.  He replies, “I love it!  But where are all the Jews??”  R. Steinsaltz describes the process of creating the “New Jew,” freed from the shackles of the Diaspora, strong and proud and able to defend himself and his Land.  Indeed, perhaps it was necessary for our survival to focus on some of these areas that are not traditionally part of the yeshiva curriculum.  The trouble is, as with most kinds of social revolutions, the baby tends to get thrown out with the bathwater; and what is “new” is confused with what is good and desirable.  Instead of blindly holding onto the past (or an idealized version of the past), we start blindly copying external role models, such as (in Israel’s case) the US.  We ask for a king “so we may be like all the nations around us.”  It was the wrong approach in Biblical times, and R. Steinsaltz points out that it’s the wrong approach now.

What is the correct approach?  Although R. Steinsaltz is an Orthodox Rabbi, he doesn’t recommend trying to recreate the East European environment of one or two centuries ago, as if that were even possible.  Nor, as I mentioned, does he recommend completely disregarding that past (which of course includes major elements other than the East European experience), as it has shaped our national character.  Rather, we are called upon to do what every generation is called upon to do – to go deep within ourselves to discover our essential character, and to adapt that character to the specific and unique needs and tendencies of our generation.  We respect the past and we respect the present, without being a slave to either one.  In this way we can build a vibrant Jewish future.