Lessons for the 21st century from Joshua and Caleb

The Torah portion this Shabbat begins with the words Sh’lach Lecha which means send forth! The bulk of the portion is the narrative describing the perceptions of 12 men whom Moses sent to scout out the land of Canaan in preparation for the Israelite conquest. The events described take place in the year after the Exodus. The text seems to clearly indicate that God’s plan was that the generation who had experienced the Exodus, the miraculous crossing of the Sea of Reeds and had received the Torah at Mount Sinai would realize the dream of settling into the Land flowing with Milk and Honey.

As we know this was not to be. When the scouts returned, 10 of the 12 reported to the People of the impossibility of a successful conquest and urged a return to Egypt. Only Joshua and Caleb saw the opportunity and the possibility of life in God’s Promised Land. The Israelites of that generation chose to side with the majority, and as a result, died in the wilderness. Of the Exodus generation, only Joshua and Caleb live to enter the Land of Israel. Judaism sees them as the prototype for the person who combines faith and action; who is realistic enough to see the challenges but optimistic enough to see possibilities and the rewards for meeting those challenges.

Over the past month, I am sure that many of you, like me, have attended multiple conferences and read literally hundreds of pages of material concerning the Six Day War. I want to discuss with you today why both the accounts of Biblical Israel’s decision not to confront their enemies in our Parsha and Modern Israel’s decisive action in June 1967, raise for me questions concerning the tension between what is “Bashert” a term I understand as Predestined Divine Will and when is what happens to us individually, communally, or as a human race, the result of Free Will; be it my own decisions or indecisions or the Free Will of others with whom I interact directly or indirectly.

In the spirit, that one of the unique and miraculous aspects of Torah, is that it can be used as a lens through which we can view our contemporary world, I want to suggest to you, this year to see Joshua and Caleb as Proto-Zionists. Similar to the heroes of this week’s Biblical drama, the Jews who gathered together 120 years ago, in Basil Switzerland and the Pioneers who chose Aliyah in the early 20th century, affirmed, that Jewish destiny rested in the hands of contemporary Jews. In the spirit of Joshua and Caleb, Zionism has proclaimed that we need not wait for Divine intervention to bring us back to the Land of Israel. Rather, if we have faith in ourselves, the Biblical promises of God can be achieved. Another parallel between the Biblical and Modern Journey to Eretz Yisrael is that similar to the differing accounts of the 10 naysayers verses Joshua and Caleb, when one reads both first hand and scholarly accounts of the Israeli leaders and decision makers of 50 years ago, it is very hard to believe they were actually responding to the same situation. Examples of this are found in the differing accounts of the decision making process both during and in the immediate aftermath of the 67 war found in the biographies and auto biographies of the participants as well as in the accounts of historians.

In one of the many conferences held over the past months dealing with the 50 year retrospective of the Six Day War, I heard Yossi Klein Ha-Levi, suggest that both then and now, Israeli and American Jews can be classified as seeing the Six Day War and the subsequent 50 years of Jewish history through the lens of either May 1967 or June 1967. The May 1967 Jews, like the 10 other spies have A MANTRA of OY GEVALT. The June 1967 Jew, like the Joshua led next generation of Israelites, who participated in the conquest of Canaan, 38 years after the initial scouts report, and who are the topic of our Haftarah, are Triumphal. Similar to the reaction to the successful conquest, the response of some Jews to 1967, has been that the conquest of the land, including Jericho, whose initial conquest is the subject of our Haftarah and in particular, the reunification of Jerusalem are evidence of Divine Intervention on behalf of Israel. Others have seen the lesson of The Six Day War as a proof text that Jews stand alone in the world against an array of enemies, who seek to destroy us.
Yossi Klein Ha Levi suggested at a Shalom Hartman sponsored symposium last month that neither lens, gives us a true picture, of the history of the Six Day War; and both, used exclusively, give us a distorted view of the present and the future.

I agree with this both /and approach. The entire history of Zionism has stood upon both the dream of Herzl to create a Jewish State which would serve as a safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution and the Achad HaAm vision of creating a center for Jewish cultural spiritual and intellectual life. Moreover, even knowing that the term Religious Zionist is generally understood to describe the Zionist organizations created by Orthodox Jews; and has over the last 50 years, become synonymous with the Settlers movement, I do self-identify as a Religious Zionist and a Reform Jew. I believe that the creation and growth of the modern State of Israel is both an act of Divine Providence and the result of Free Will choices of Jews around the world for the past 120 years to create, build, support and protect, the modern State of Israel.

Our Torah reading this week concludes with the command to wear fringes on the corner of our garments as an outward sign of the responsibility and the opportunity we have to perform Mitzvot. It is the origin of the Tallit and it is a passage that is recited at the end of the Sh’ma every morning and evening of every day. The Tzitzit remind us of the 613 commandments of the Torah and of the fact that every day every one of us has the opportunity and responsibility to perform Mitzvot. We wear them on the four corners as a symbol that wherever we are and in whatever direction we are moving there is an opportunity to serve God and our community with all our heart soul and might. To me, the wearing of a Tallit is also a physical metaphor reminding me of the imperative to tie myself to both God and to the Jewish People; and that our destiny is intertwined.

The Reform movement, that is often given a lot of bad press regarding its commitment to Zionism, actually passed a formal resolution in the early 1950’s resolving that “Hallel and “She heche yanu” should be recited on Yom HaAtzmaut; The 1975 Prayer book, Gates of Prayer, the first reform Siddur published after the founding of Israel in 1948, included a special liturgy for Yom HaAtzmaut, as well as assigning special Torah and Haftarah readings for Israel Independence Day.

Ferdinand Isserman an early 20th century Reform Rabbi once wrote that as Jews we are required to both “Pray as if everything depends upon God and act as if everything depends upon you.” I truly believe that both the stories of our Torah and Haftarah this week, and the 120 year history of modern Zionism are examples that what happens in the world; what happens to all of us and each of us is a product of both Divine Will and Free Will. May it be God’s Will and our Will that the day will soon arrive when Israel and her neighbors can in harmony sing the words of psalm 133 Hine ma tov u ma nayim shevet achim gam yachad


About the Author
Rabbi Borovitz was elected the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge in June 2013 after serving the synagogue as rabbi for the previous 25 years. Prior to assuming his position in River Edge in the summer of 1988 Rabbi Borovitz served as Hillel Rabbi and Instructor in Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Texas in Austin (1975-82), the Executive Director of the Labor Zionist Alliance on the United States, (1982-83) and as the Rabbi of Union Temple in Brooklyn, New York (1983-88). Rabbi Borovitz, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, received his B.A. from Vanderbilt University in 1970, his M.A. from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religious (HUC-JIR) in 1973 and was ordained at HUC-JIR in June 1975. In March of 2000, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity from HUC-JIR. Rabbi Borovitz is an active leader in community affairs. He has been a member of the Bergen County Interfaith Brotherhood Sisterhood committee for 25 years. He is the immediate past chair of Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and has also served on the Jewish Federation Board. He currently serves on the National Board of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; the Rabbinic cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America and on the Foundation Board of Bergen Regional Medical Center, the county hospital in Bergen County NJ. He is past President of the Bergen County Board of Rabbis and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis as well as the founding chairman of the Jewish Learning Project of Bergen County Rabbi Borovitz is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Standard and the Bergen Record and a frequent lecturer on Judaism; The Middle East and Interfaith cooperation.
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