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I spy the true Israel

In 1798, a young Rebbe Nahman eventually of Breslov decided to make the journey to Eretz Yisrael. The time was treacherous. Napolean’s army had just invaded Egypt. Traveling by sea was difficult, and Turkey was dangerous. Traveling through the Ottoman Empire, the Jewish community in Turkey didn’t want to let Rebbe Nahman go. However, eventually, he landed in the port of Haifa and arrived in Israel. Soon after his arrival, he chose to return to Europe. The Jewish community in Israel kept him for a few months, but the visit was short-lived. After such a complicated and life-threatening trip, the decision to go back seems shocking. The story of the journey to Israel remains a mystery. Why did he go, and why did he return so soon?

Comparing the events in Parashat Shlach to the Haftarah from the beginning of the book of Joshua shed some light on the story of Rebbe Nahman.

At the beginning of Shlach, HaShem tells Moshe to send out people to tour the promised land:

“Send people to tour the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one participant from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them. So Moses, by HaShem’s command, sent them out from the wilderness of Paran, all of them being men of consequence, leaders of the Israelites. And these were their names etc.” (Numbers 13:1-3)

With great pomp and circumstance, the tribal captains go off to the land of Canaan. They return carrying the land’s bounty, including the famous grapes we all know as a symbol of Israel. Their report will cause the people of Israel to spend forty years wandering in the desert until the entire generation dies out. At the same time, the events lead to a great calamity known as “bechiya le’dorot” or crying for eternity. The messengers declared that the land was worthless since they lacked the power to conquer it. Trusting neither in God nor Moses, the leaders, except for Yehoshua and Caleb, scared the people and evoked God’s wrath.

Yet, despite participating in the failed mission, Yehoshua seems to repeat Moses’s mistake. He, too, sends men to the land of Israel before the people cross the Jordan. How could he have been so short-sited?

If we look closely at Yehoshua’s command, we see that he learned from Moses’s failed attempt. In Yehoshua’s version, everything is kept quiet. Only two men went this time, not to “tour” the land but to spy on the people there. Whereas the leaders in Moses’ version were to see how great the land was and function almost as a public relations event, everything surrounding Yehoshua’s mission was militaristic and practical. The spies’ duty was to discover the best way to conquer the land.

Moses sent men to see an almost magical land flowing with milk and honey. They came back disappointed in the prospects of inheriting the land. Yehoshua sent spies to plan for Am Yisrael to arrive and build the land.

In Likutei Moharan (2:116), Rebbe Nahman reproduces a fascinating story from some Hassidim who moved to the land of Israel. They told the rebbe that, before they came, they imagined the land to be magical and almost beyond reality. Upon arrival, they discovered that the rocks were hard and the dirt was dirty. I once heard from Rabbi David Ebner that he believed that Rebbe Nahman went to Israel to show people it was not a magical place in the sky but an actual location in this world. A land one could visit and live. Many in Europe, it seems, believed that Israel wasn’t part of this world. Like Moshe’s tribal captains, they thought it was a type of Magic Kingdom that one could never reach. Like Yehoshua’s spies, Rebbe Nahman went to demonstrate that one could make the journey. Once there, he no longer needed to stay, for he accomplished his mission of showing that Eretz Yisrael, despite its holiness, was like every other land.

I believe that a problem we often face in Israel education is the same one Rebbi Nahman confronted. Many believe the State of Israel to be some wondrous land and hence not a real country with real problems and incredible potential. Those students educated without an understanding that Israel is a country like any other often are disappointed when the country doesn’t live up to some impossible double standard. Only by understanding how wonderful the real Israel is and how special it is that we can live in an independent Israel today, with all its problems, can people appreciate the complexity and beauty of life here.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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