Skip to content

Parashat Shelach 5776 — 07/02/2016

Parashat Shelach 5776 — 07/02/2016

Bamidbar 13:1-15:41

This week we turn to another issue that has been debated throughout the millennia in the Jewish world, and continues to be debated, hotly, today. What is the nature of Jewish society, and how do we best fulfill our mission on earth? This time we approach it through the sin of the spies. R. Steinsaltz writes:

In what many consider one of the narrative’s key sentences, the spies say that the land “consumes its inhabitants” (13:32). With this sentence, they raise a fundamental issue – whether to go to the Land of Israel or not.

Life in the wilderness is almost like being part of a Kollel, whose members receive a monthly stipend to support their full-time Torah study. The Jews in the wilderness received manna morning and evening, and were provided with all their basic worldly needs. … When one lives in the wilderness, one can live a complete spiritual life. But when one enters the Land of Israel, one’s spirituality is placed in extreme danger.

The Land of Israel of course, all material needs would have to be taken care of by the Jews. Not only would they be farmers, who must toil on the land, at its pace and in its time, but they would have to clean the sewers and fight in the army and (in modern times) make sure the electricity grid doesn’t go down, even on Yom Kippur. All the messy stuff of running a state. More to the point, all the messy stuff of interacting with the material world. It is living a natural life, rather than a supernatural life. The spies preferred the supernatural life. (I’ve always wondered why they were so sure that Gd’s miraculous interventions would continue, even in the face of their contravening His Will that they enter the Land. Even in more auspicious circumstances, the general rule is “we don’t count on miracles.”)

Moses clashes with the spies not because he wants to turn the Jewish people into peasants who work the soil, but for a much more profound reason. Moses regards life in the material world as a challenge and treats it as a goal to strive for, in spite of the problems that are involved. …

The spies are the ones who introduced the view that the physical is dirty and undesirable, and that one must adhere strictly to the spiritual. Opposing them was Moses, who replied that even though the land has its difficulties, and even though the manna is wonderful and convenient, it is better to live on simple wheat, which is fertilized with cow manure.

I might point out that Christianity has by and large adopted the spies’ view that body and soul are in opposition to one another, and associates the soul with all that is good and the body with the Devil. Judaism obviously does not take this approach – rather the soul is supposed to be in charge of the body, like a rider controls his mount, but the body supports the soul’s ability to accomplish its mission on earth. It is only when the body takes charge of the soul and bends it to its own, material purposes, that we run into problems. But the body is not inherently bad or dirty.

Well, we know how the story turns out. The spies die a gruesome death, Moses leads the people to the doorstep of the Land of Israel, they enter the Land under the leadership of Yehoshua, and live on the Land for almost 1000 years, trying to instantiate the ideal community life as delineated in the Torah. Apparently Gd favors Moshe’s position. How do we instantiate this position nowadays?

We have often discussed that creation is structured in layers, and that at the basis of this layered structure is an unchanging field of pure Existence, unqualified and unmanifest. It is possible for the mind to experience this level of existence, by systematically allowing an object of experience to become more and more refined, more and more “transparent” as it were, until the object drops off and the mind is left awake in itself, but not bounded by the boundaries of any experienced object. Thus, the mind experiences pure Being, which is at the basis of our individual existence, and the existence of everything in the cosmos. It is totally non-material. Living a spiritual life means identifying oneself with this infinite field. It would appear that in order to experience this field, one must withdraw from the state of activity – but this was exactly the argument of the spies!! How are we to maintain a spiritual existence when we are continually drawn outward, away from the infinite and into the finite realm, if for nothing else than to keep our bodies functioning?

I think the answer is, it takes practice. Just like when we exercise we build muscle mass by alternating periods in which we challenge our muscles and periods when we let our muscles rest. In the same way, if we alternate the experience of pure Being with periods of activity, we can eventually acquire a style of functioning where the totally abstract, spiritual experience of pure Being is maintained even while our body and mind and emotions are engaged in external activity. I believe this is Moshe’s ideal – as R. Steinsaltz writes (above): “Moses regards life in the material world as a challenge.” It challenges our experience of pure Being – it draws us out of that experience, but not completely, and by challenging Being, it makes it stronger and stronger in our awareness. From that infinite basis of life, our actions become more powerful, life-supporting and integrative – in a word, ideal behavior.

Haftarah: Yehoshua 2:1-24

Our parashah is the story of the 12 spies Moshe Rabbeinu sent at the beginning of the 40 years of wandering through the wilderness. Our Haftarah is the story of the 2 spies Yehoshua sent at the end of the 40 years, to spy on Jericho and to report back to him what the state of affairs was in that city. The first expedition ended in disaster. The second was a success. What was the difference? One difference was that the people came to Moshe as a rabble demanding to send the spies. Moshe reluctantly agreed. Gd went along with the plan, even though of course He knew the results, as it says, “Send for yourself men …” “For yourself” – if you want to send them, send them – I’m not commanding you to do it (Rashi, quoting Midrash Tanchuma). The sending of the spies by the people manifested their lack of faith.

In the latter case, only two spies, and seasoned ones at that, were sent. According to Rabbinic tradition the two were Caleb, one of the two faithful spies from the first expedition, and Pinchas, who had proved his mettle by putting an end to the Midianite-induced orgies at Shittim (in parashat Balak). They reported only to Yehoshua and not to the whole people; this was strictly a military mission and only the leadership had to be privy to it. There was no chance to spread tall tales and generate mass hysteria.

Perhaps the most significant difference is that the generation had completely turned over. Gd promised, in the parashah, that the whole generation that wept over the first spies’ report would die in the desert, and a new generation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that they were going to enter the Land, would possess the Land. This generation was ready to accept the challenge of living material life. They had spent 40 years, virtually all their lives, living a purely spiritual existence. Now they were ready to integrate that spirituality into material life.