David Walk

Celebrate Israel

So, I’m still in the United States writing about this week’s Torah reading for Eretz Yisrael, even though I’ll hear a different Torah reading here in the Diaspora. In Eretz Yisrael we will read the story of the ‘spies’ whose negative assessment of the invasion plans resulted in our ancestors spending forty years (about 38 extra years) in the Midbar. A part of me feels a similar tension between Eretz Yisrael and GALUT while visiting my country of origin. More about that after a little discussion about what those who scouted out the Land got wrong.

Their grave error is contained in their report:

We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large…We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we (Bamidbar 13:27-28 & 31).

Probably, the most famous explanation for the sin is contained in the beginning of verse 32: Thus they spread calumnies about the land. I love that word ‘calumnies’. It just sounds so evil. I can hear it rolling off the lips of some Shakespearean actor. Other translations render it rumors or evil report, but you just can’t beat ‘calumnies’. The question arises what is the difference between slander and calumny? Slander involves lies; calumny defames with the truth, which is often more sinister.

It sounds like the sin was LASHON HARA or gossipping. We do view spreading tales as a grievous transgression, often described as character assassination. When the negative reports are factually accurate, it becomes very difficult to undo the damage. But do we feel the same way about inanimate objects? Can we be guilty of calumny against a tree or a stream? Perhaps, we love the Land so much that we raise its status to almost human levels.

There is another well known approach based upon another statement of the ten scouts: We are not able to go up against these people for they are stronger than we are (verse 31). They sinned against themselves for doubting their own ability to get the job done. Rav Twerski Z”L often said that our worst enemy is low self esteem. It causes failure in many aspects of our lives. We must emulate the Little Engine Who Could, and transform ‘I think I can’ into ‘I know I can’. 

This second approach borders on heresy, of course, because doubting your ability to do something God explicitly told you to do is also doubting God. That can’t be good. We must have faith that God only asks of us tasks within our power to accomplish. There are occasional exceptions of ONES or force majeur, but that can’t apply to this conquest of Eretz Yisrael, because this action was specifically demanded by God and at this time.

But what if the sin was something entirely different? Most of the authorities and commentaries who discuss this issue are great scholars from the Middle Ages. Towards the end of the tractate Ketubot there is a discussion about the obligation of living in Eretz Yisrael. And there’s a famous Tosfot (starting HU OMER, 110b) that interjects into the discussion that we can’t fulfill this Mitzvah today. These great European scholars posit two reasons. The first is dangers on the road. Travel in the Medieval world was really perilous and often fatal.

The other reason given is fascinating: It’s hard to keep all the Mitzvot required by living in Eretz Yisrael. I assume they are discussing things like TERUMOT, MAASROT and SHMITTA. Generally speaking the agricultural laws. I think we’ve pretty much got those things under control nowadays. Since supermarkets clearly delineate the rabbinic supervision over every fruit and vegetable, it is no longer difficult at all. It’s easy peasy. So, based on Tosfot’s own criteria, it is clearly a Mitzvah, again. Yeah!

 Now, obviously many people have responsibilities in the Diaspora that make it hard for them to pick and go to Eretz Yisrael. But there are a lot of people who don’t really have any great obstacles to making Aliyah, and just aren’t going. Doesn’t that seem to be a bad thing?

I  know nobody wants to be talked to about these things, and I’m sure there are readers who will find what I’m writing annoying, but isn’t it true? Shouldn’t most of us take that free ticket on El Al? Isn’t that what the ‘wings of eagles’ metaphor means?

So, I was watching a video of the Celebrate Israel parade this week, and thinking: Isn’t that exactly what the ‘spies’ said, ‘Let’s celebrate how wonderful Eretz Yisrael is, but for totally unclear reasons or excuses we can’t go and live there!’

Can someone explain to me why that isn’t CHET HAMERAGLIM, the ‘sin of the spies’? Maybe it’s a good thing that people in GALUT don’t read this story the same week as the parade marches up Fifth Avenue, or maybe not?

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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