December 9, 2021 |

Spies and Climbers

I remember being in Israel during the hot summer of 2005. The whole country was tensely debating the question of Israel's unilateral disengagement from Gaza. Everywhere you looked, there were orange banners flying and the slogan "yehudi lo megaresh yehudi.[1]" Even those who supported the disengagement were in pain and distress. What would happen to the families who were forcibly evicted from their homes? (They suffered greatly and were not sufficiently cared for.) What would happen to what was left behind? (Most of it was destroyed by the Palestinians) Would there be peace? (No, but lots of missiles.) It was time of national introspection and debate about the future of Israel.

I spent one Shabbat that summer in the town of Efrat in the West Bank, part of the Biblical area known as Yehuda[2]. A startling piece of Torah I read there has stuck with me, from Rav Amnon Bazak, a teacher at the Har Etzion yeshiva and my cousin, whom I have quoted here before. He began by invoking the familiar story of the spies, described in the beginning of this week's Torah portion, in Numbers 13. In this sad story, the Jewish people decide that they must reconnoiter the land of Israel before entering, conquering and settling it. Then, as today, there were other people who laid claim to some of the territory and the children of Israel were obligated to defeat them in order to take possession of the land[3]. However, ten of the 12 spies (or envoys) who went on the mission came back with the conclusion that the land and its people were too strong to be conquered. The people soon lost hope and conviction, threatened to mutiny against Moshe and to appoint a leader who - if you can imagine - would return the people to Egypt. God was so incensed that He decided that the entire generation was not worthy of entering the land.

But Rav Bazak quickly contrasted the story of the spies with the less-known story of the ma'pilim, the climbers, which appears in the next chapter, in Numbers 14. The people were so regretful that they had messed up with the spies that they wanted to pretend as if it had never happened. Ironically, the people who had just a moment earlier been lamenting that they could never conquer the land of Israel, were suddenly full of ambition and daring. They got up early, ascended a mountain and declared war. Despite all warnings, they sallied out against the Canaanites and Amalekhites and were grievously defeated, at great cost.

Rav Bazak suggested that the spies - who said "we cannot conquer the land" - were representative of one group of Israelis, who said that we cannot keep Gaza or the West Bank. It is too hard and the Palestinians are too numerous. We had better just withdraw, for our own benefit. The climbers - who said "let's go conquer it right now! against all warnings - represent a second group who feel that Gaza belongs to us too and we should conquer and keep all the Biblical land of Israel, no matter the costs and contraindications. The spies can look at the climbers and accuse them of overconfidence and religious jingoism. The climbers can look at the spies and say that they are weak Jews who don't believe in God or Jewish destiny. But it would appear that both sides are wrong. Both the spies and the climbers were condemned by God.

However, within the mistakes of the climbers and the spies, it is possible to see that both approaches are correct, but only at the proper time. Had the climbers been gung-ho to conquer the land when the spies had first returned, their march into Israel would have been a glorious victory. This is what Kalev says "let us go up and conquer her, for we are surely able!" (13:30) Had they accepted the futility of conquering the land once the sentence had been passed down, they would have saved their lives and the terrible defeat by our arch-nemeses.

Knowing when to be like Kalev (we can do it!") and when to be like the spies ("no, we can't!") is not an easy task. Had Herzl, Weizmann and Ben Gurion been like the spies, there would be no state of Israel today. There were ample reasons to think that the national project of creating a Jewish state was a pipe dream. Did anyone in the world believe that a rag-tag band of Jews could cross the desert and establish a home for themselves on the Mediterranean? Not in the time of the Bible and not in the dawn of the 20th century! Yet, by being like the spies (perhaps?), we have also - hopefully wisely, but who knows? - secured peace with as many of our neighbors as possible. We gave back the Sinai to make peace with Egypt, gave up our claims to Jordan[4] (among other things) to gain peace with the Jordanians and have made efforts via territorial concession to make peace with Lebanon, Syria and, now, Gaza.

We do not have a direct connection with God, to know His will. Are we the generation of the desert - doomed to wait another generation for peace in Israel? Or are we the next generation and all we need is the courage and conviction to boldly go forward?

There are so many questions we do not know the answer to and - like the Jews in the desert - we sit murmuring in our tents (see Deuteronomy 1:27), unsure of what our next step is. We are afraid that our leaders don't know what to do, afraid of the consequences of a major mistake, afraid that the world is turning against us and that the next Hitler is waiting in the wings. Should we have given back Gaza or not? Can we make peace with the Palestinians or is it impossible? Can we stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons? How, and at what cost?

My feeling about these questions is that - even if we cannot know the answers -- there is still more we can learn from the spies and the climbers. In one important way, they are the same: they both thought that it was up to them alone at that moment to decide the future of the Jewish people. The spies thought they could not conquer the land "because they are stronger than us[5]." (13:31) But what about the Jewish destiny? God's plans for them? The Torah, which says they will one day inherit the land? They were only interested in their own immediate military analysis and not in the larger questions.
The climbers, too, thought the matter rested only with them. They went to war against Moshe's wishes, without the ark and without the Torah. They were interested only in their own immediate desire for conquest and success, not in the larger questions. What about God's wishes? What about Jewish destiny?

It is a "miracle" that the Jews still exist in the year 2010. It is a "miracle" that the Jews escaped the Holocaust, rebuilt the Jewish people and created the state of Israel in one century. It is a "miracle" that Israel won the War of Independence in 1948 and turned back the Arab armies in 1967. These are not things that military analysts, presidential advisors or palm readers suggested or could have suggested. Their predictions about what will happen now are opinions that I would never invest in.

Sure, we don't know the answers, but we cannot approach the existential questions of the land of Israel without believing that there is more here than punditry and politics, without recognizing the larger questions of Jewish destiny that play a role. We ARE God's people and there IS Jewish destiny at work here. We know that Israel is our holy land, our homeland, and that -- when the time is right - we will inherit it.

It is our duty to be proud Jews, to believe in our past, our present and our future, to know that we have the right to live and be free in the land of Israel. It is our duty to support Israel, to visit (and possibly live) there. When we love what Israel does - and when we don't - she is still our family and our destiny. We cannot side - ever -- with her enemies.

We should pray that Jewish lives be secure, that our leaders be given the inspiration to know what to do. We can strengthen our Jewish communities and our dedication to the future of the Jewish people, through our culture, our traditions, our Torah. All the rest is hevel and ruach, vanity and wind, a waste of breath and paper.

May Hashem grant us the strength to be good Jews and lovers of Zion and may God grant Bibi and Barack and all those who need it, the wisdom and discernment to choose the right path, for in the words of Kalev, "yachol nuchal la", we know that we can.

Shabbat shalom!

[1] "A Jew does not expel a Jew"
[2] The area populated by Israelis after 1967 was often known as Yesha, standing for Yehuda (south of Jerusalem), Shom'rom (north of Jerusalem) and "'aza (Gaza.)
[3] Two side points: a) the people who laid claim to it then (Amorites, Perizzites etc) are NOT the same people, nor the ancestors of the people who lay claim to it today. The Arab Palestinians are much more recent residents. b) conquering the land meant Jewish sovereignty, not that all the non-Israelites needed to be expelled. They were only to be expelled (and/or killed) if they failed to agree to peace terms.
[4] The original mandate included the area east of the Jordan, which is why it is known as the West Bank. The early Revisionists meant to have a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan and the current Jordanians (who are really Arabians) have less claim to their state than the Israelis and the Palestinians!
[5] I have translated "mimenu" as "than us." Rashi notes the Rabbinic translation as "than Him", which makes them into heretics. The two positions may not be so far apart, though. If the spies felt that the matter was only up to their own strength, were they not denying that God's state destiny for them was untrue?


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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