Parshat Shelah tells the story of the Meraglim, the spies chosen by Moshe at G-d’s behest, and charged with undertaking a reconnaissance mission in the future Land of Israel. Those spies were the cream of the desert aristocracy: כלם אנשים ראשי בני ישראל המה (במדבר י”ג:ג) / All of them were men of distinction; they were the heads of the Children of Israel.”
For most of us this is a simple story. The spies returned bearing incredible fruit, proof of how rich and fertile the land was. Yet, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb they shared a consensus that the land was unconquerable. That it was inhabited by giants compared to which “we are like grasshoppers”. That it was a land which “consumes its inhabitants.”
אפס כי עז העם הישב בארץ והערים בצרות גדלות מאד (יג:כח)
However, the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified
לא נוכל לעלות אל העם כי חזק ממנו (יג:לא)
We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.
ארץ אכלת יושביה הוא (יג:לב)
a land that consumes its inhabitants
ונהי בעינינו כחגבים וכן היינו בעיניהם (יג:לג)
In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.
This, of course, triggered an outcry from the Children of Israel, resulting in a decision to postpone the conquest of the Land until the entire generation that had emerged from Egypt died out in the dessert. They would have to be replaced by a new generation that did not share the insecurity and negativity of the spies and the tribes they led.
As for us, our sole legacy from this story is the logo of the Israel Tourism Ministry featuring the gargantuan grapes the spies had toted back to the desert.
And yet there are two important questions that beg for answers:
1. Why the need for espionage in the first place? Wasn’t G-d’s word good enough? Wasn’t it sufficient that the Israelites, by way of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, had their roots in the Promised Land? After all, when G-d told Abraham to relocate to Canaan, Abraham did not first send spies to scope out the territory. And it was not until after he had migrated that G-d told him to tour the entire land as this was his patrimony and the legacy for his descendants.
2. If there was indeed a need for a reconnaissance mission to determine the feasibility of conquering the land, surely the Israelite tribal chieftains – regardless of their moral and ethical integrity – were the very LAST people Moses should have picked for the job.
The ideal spy is young, courageous, agile and believes no challenge is insurmountable. Hence, it made no sense to choose (with the exceptions of Joshua and Caleb)) older, established, nomadic chieftains. Such men would be incapable of seeing a viable future in a settled polity that would need a totally different kind of leadership.
Allow me to offer a modern analogy. Imagine if in the late 19th or early 20th century world Jewry had decided to send a team of spies to determine the feasibility of re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, then occupied by Turkey. Instead of appointing young, optimistic, intrepid scouts they chose to dispatch a delegation that would be comprised of the equivalent of today’s Satmar Rebbe, Bobover Rebbe, Vizhnitzer Rebbe, Belzer Rebbe, Munkasczer Rebbe, Malkiel Kotler of Lakewood, Rabbis Weiss and Sternbuch of the Eidah Chareidis, and the four other nonagenarians who comprise the Lithuanian Council of Torah Sages.
What a sight that would have been. Picture a band of elderly rabbonim – many of them well into their 90s, who are accustomed to wielding absolute power within their limited communities, and whose material needs are secure – being entrusted with such a mission. Such men would be clueless regarding what it takes to recruit an army, pave a road, install a power grid, create water resources, build cities, finance hospitals, and raise a generation that would yield the doctors and scientists and farmers and engineers needed for a viable society.
Leaders like these rabbis and their minions are dependent on life support from their host societies without which they would have no streets on which to walk, no farms from which to source even the wheat for their Passover matzah, no doctors to tend to their sick, no soldiers and police to protect them. They would have no water, no power, no sanitation, no roads. Without gentiles (and ‘bad’ Jews) they would be in deep trouble.
Imagine this group doddering about in their shtreimels and silk and sable robes, their large black hats and tailored frock coats, plus the worst possible footwear for such an expedition. And not one of them knowing how to ride a horse or drive a car, let alone use a compass or forage for food and water.
Of course they would return with a negative report. After all, who wouldn’t look like a giant to these men? How could the land do anything but consume the likes of them for breakfast, considering their ignorance of even the most rudimentary strategies for survival, let alone for building a country?
Yet this is precisely what happened in the desert. And it is PRECISELY what happened during the pre-state era when the Torah sages (then as now) recoiled at the very idea of Zionism. Because they knew, of course, that the creation of such a state would make them and their very narrow body of learning obsolete. And their power would be gone in a flash.
Fortunately there were Calebs and Joshuas back then. Those early Zionists were young, agile, intrepid and fully aware of the challenges involved in building a country. And the rabbonim, then as now, hated them. These rabbis would prefer to shepherd their flocks to the chimneys of Auschwitz rather than encourage them to move to pre-State Israel. They justified their hostility by arguing that Zionism was pre-empting the Redemption, when no one really knows what the Redemption is supposed to look like and how it is meant to start. It is highly unlikely that it will come in the form of the prophet Elijah descending from heaven on a white donkey.
There is a classic joke about a hassidic rebbe and a Lithuanian rosh yeshiva who run into one another on the streets of Boro Park. Says the rebbe to his friend; “Have you heard that Moshiach has come?”. To which the learned rosh yeshiva responds, “ Yes I have”. “Nu?” Says the Rebbe, “What do you think?” To which the rosh yeshiva replies; “We survived everything else, we’ll survive this too.”
The fact is that Redemption of any kind is not on the front burner of the haredi establishment. It’s not even on the back burner. For them, the whole idea of Redemption is anathema as it would make their lifestyle obsolete, and would put all those rebbes and rosh yeshivas out of business – and they know it.
Since the era of the Talmud, the rabbis’ earthly power has been anchored in Torah shb’al peh, the oral law. This Talmudic system of using Biblical exegesis to rationalize and justify ever-increasing mountains of legal minutiae would render the rank and file totally dependent on them for even the simplest decisions in life. And there was justification for this. The early post-Temple sages understood that a new Judaism had to be created, one that would help keep Jews – or at least a critical mass of them – within the fold until the Redemption and the return to the Jewish homeland. And, to their credit, it worked, even if at times they manipulated the system through self-serving legal fictions and profitable arrangements with temporal authorities.
By now these mountains of minutiae have grown so enormous that toeing the line has become a full time job. It formalizes dependency on a hierarchy of rabbonim to help one navigate the treacherous shoals of do’s and don’ts. Which is precisely what the rabbis want.
Just last week, a popular haredi halakhah column featured 887 words on the do’s and don’ts concerning dental implants. And a year earlier, that same columnist wrote an entire thesis on whether and when it is permissible, after using it, to flush a toilet on Shabbos if there is a fly underneath that might be killed in the process. In each instance one is instructed to consult with his “rav” who, in turn, would have to consult his rosh yeshiva, who, in turn, would need to contact a major posek (halakhic authority) to determine whether it’s yes or no. Usually it’s no.
These rabbonim know very well that exegetical Jewish law will be abrogated after the Redemption. They know that this entire mountain range of halakhic minutiae will become obsolete once the Messiah comes. And they know, furthermore, that any return to Eretz Israel requires decisions and actions that are inconsistent with exegetical law, and understandably so. Such an impractical Judaism was never meant to be authoritative in a sovereign Jewish state. Indeed, it would no longer have a purpose – and neither would the men who make it their profession.
Which is why Zionism is anathema for them. And which is why even – especially – in the State of Israel, they double down on their rejectionism by re-creating the most draconian versions of their erstwhile diaspora communities. If it takes wearing a $10,000 fur hat in 95 degree (35C”) heat, so be it. If it takes dressing in 19th Century middle European frock coats in the 21st Century middle east, so be it. If it means turning an iconic Italian fedora into the trademark of their lifestyle, so be it. If it means keeping as a lingua franca, an anachronistic European jargon, so be it. If it means disdaining a majority of the Jews among whom they live, because they are not Ashkenazim, so be it. If it means a cavalier attitude toward sponging off those Jews for whom Israel is indeed “ראשית צמיחת גאולתינו” the early onset of our Redemption, so be it. If it means not only refusing to partake in the country’s defense, but also in brazenly mocking all of its customs – from breaking the silence on Memorial Day to refusing even to utter a prayer in their synagogues for the protection of soldiers – so be it.
Meanwhile the rosh yeshivas continue to foster the learning of a Torah that paradoxically works to hobble the minds, the creative potential, and the redemptive capabilities of its lifelong students. The hassidic rebbes roam the world to grift the funds needed to each build their own mini-colosseums. And their followers, mostly unemployed, spend inordinate amounts of time scheming ways to game the system in order to afford a bourgeois lifestyle. Zionism may be a dirty word, but using the Zionist political system to dig into the pockets of the Zionists is glatt kosher.
Their leaders, the so-called Gedolim are exactly like the Meraglim, the spies in the desert – vested interests who see no personal benefit in the redemption of their minions.
As to why Moses had to dispatch those spies in the first place, my hunch is that he needed a ruse to buy time before the Bnei Yisrael would be fit to conquer the Land. After promising the generation of the Exodus that he was leading them to the Promised Land, he had to backtrack. Clearly that generation lacked the spirit and the self-confidence needed to make the transition from slavery to independence. So he sent their leaders on an espionage mission, knowing full well their report would provide the excuse to delay the conquest until that generation had expired.
One has only to listen to the speeches of today’s Satmar Rebbe and Malkiel Kotler, or be keyed into the Saturday night sessions at the Brisker Yeshiva in Jerusalem, or read the purple prose pashkevilim that decorate the walls of Meah Shearim, or hear the hushed talk of Bais Yaakov teachers who compare Zionism to Nazism, to know that the meraglim are alive and well and doing their best to thwart the Redemption, any redemption.