Shelach: The Untold Story of Israel

A beautiful view of the Galililee as seen from the town of Yavne'el. Photo taken by the auther in 2011 (copyright free)

Yisrael Lishansky was a successful veterinarian living in a small town on the outskirts of Kiev. He was a devout Jew, had seven beautiful children, and was well established in his community. In the year 1889, going against what others have advised him, he and his wife Kreindel (Atarah) did the unbelievable: they moved to Israel. They picked up, took what they can, and headed towards the unknown. They did not know what they would do in Israel, what part of it they will live in, or if they would be allowed in. They were not wrong. After a long trip by sea and upon arriving in the port city of Jaffa, they were not allowed off the ship. Forced to go dock in Beirut, Lebanon, they returned twice to the Jaffa and were finally allowed in. Not an easy reception, but that was not what they had expected.

Yisrael’s family settled down in Jaffa and tried to figure out where they can go next and where they may be able to support themselves. The rumor in town was that there would be more work up north, in the new town of Zichron Ya’akov, established by Barron Rothschild, and so they headed north. The family got a small place in Haifa, and the men would walk to Zichron Yaakov for work. Eventually, they found a small basement apartment in Zichron Yaakov and settled down there. Not an easy reception, but that was not what they expected.

As they finally felt like they were settling down, there was a viral outbreak of cholera. Yisrael’s wife Atara and his son Moshe died on the same day in 1891. The Lishansky in a state of shock and mourning.

By now, Yisrael’s brother Yosef and other relatives had joined them in Israel. The family had slowly but surely begun to establish itself in the new land they loved so much. Years went by and a land that was desolate, swampy, and harsh began to flourish. Were things easy and perfect? Of course not. That is why they lived there and chose to be part of the historic rebuilding of the land.

A plaque in the cemetary in the norther city of Yavne’el where Chaya Lishnasky (later Sachin) and her daughter Atarah Abramowitz lived and were buried detailing the family history. (copyright free. taken by author)

Vineyards were planted, villages, Kibbutzim, and even cities began sprouting up, and the land life in the land became more and more attractive. Yisrael’s daughters got married, including my great great grandmother, Chana Lishansky, her sister Chaya, and several others. Some members of the family, including Chana, moved to the more established town of Petach Tikvah, while Yisrael and his brother Yosef moved to help build a new town up north called Metulah while their sister Chaya went on to establish the town of Yavne’el. Were things easy and perfect? Of course not. That is why they lived there and chose to be part of the historic rebuilding of the land.

In 1912, Chana’s brother Yosef was passionate about providing independent security to the Jewish farmers who were attacked regularly. He joined a new organization called Hashomer, an earlier version of the Haganah, which became a model for Jewish self-reliance and self-defense. He and his friends aspired to the day that the Jews will have their own homeland in the land of Israel where they can be independent and self-reliant. This is why in 1915 as he and his friends, knowing of the British sympathy towards the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel, decided to be part of a secret spying organization called NILI, Hebrew acronym for Netzach Yisrael Lo Yeshaker, meaning, the Eternity of Israel—God—will not lie in his promise to give the Jews the land of Israel.

Yosef Lishansky of Nili in his youth (source: Wikipedia copyright free)

He began taking part in secret espionage missions against the Ottoman army, which controlled Israel at the time, sending the information in secret letters to the British army in Cairo, Egypt. In September 1920, Yosef Lishansky was caught by the Ottoman army, taken in to be investigated in Jerusalem, transferred to Damascus, where he was sentenced to death and hung in the central square of Damascus.

Yosef Lishansky with his wife and two children before embarking on his last mission (source: Wikipedia)

His body was transferred back to Israel to the town of Rishon Letziyon where fewer than twenty people attended his funeral. Yosef did not get to see the fruit of his work. He did not get to see the British army march into Israel, the Balfour declaration, which took place just two months after his death. Surely, he did not get to see the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, millions of Jews moving to the land of Israel, or Israel being the epicenter of Jewish life around the world. And yet, he did.

When the Lishansky family saw the land of Israel, they did not look at it superficially. They did not see a land of swamps, rocks, and malaria. They did not see a land of poverty, clashes, and desolation. They saw a land of milk and honey. They saw a land that is not settled—yet. The family saw a land that was promised to their forefathers Abraham Isaac, and Jacob. In fact, before they saw the land or a clear picture of what it may look like, they saw the beauty of Israel. They believed in Israel. They looked beyond the superficial surface and saw what it is all about.

This perspective explains one of the most challenging questions commentaries struggle within Parashat Shelach: what was the sin of the spies Moses sent?

The Torah tells us how Moses asked twelve Jewish leaders to scout the land of Israel, see what it is like, and bring back a report of what they saw. After scouting the land for forty days, the spies come back with a detailed report to Moses—and the people of Israel:

“They went, and they came to Moses and Aaron and all the congregation of the children of Israel in the desert of Paran, to Kadesh. They brought them back a report, as well as to the entire congregation, and they showed them the fruit of the land. They told him and said, “We came to the land to which you sent us, and it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified, and there we saw even the offspring of the giant. The Amalekites dwell in the south land, while the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the mountainous region. The Canaanites dwell on the coast and alongside the Jordan.” (Bamidbar chapter 13)

While the conditions they describe seem harsh and challenging, their report also appears to be fair, informative, and balanced. After all, is there anything wrong in describing the facts on the ground? Things started escalating quickly. Joshua and Caleb, who were among the group of twelve spies, expressed their displeasure immediately:

“Caleb silenced the people to [hear about] Moses, and he said, “We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome it.”

Clearly, the other men did not share Joshua and Caleb’s opinion:

“But the men who went up with him said, “We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we. They spread an [evil] report about the land which they had scouted, telling the children of Israel, “The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature. There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”

Things got so bad that the discourse quickly escalated to violence:

“The entire congregation threatened to pelt them with stones, but the glory of the Lord appeared in the Tent of Meeting to all the children of Israel.” (Bamidbar chapter 14)

How did what looks like a mild report on the part of the spies lead to such behavior? Where did things go wrong?

The punishment that followed also changed the course of Jewish history. God gives the people of Israel the full measure of consequences:

“Say to them, ‘As I live,’ says the Lord, ‘if not as you have spoken in My ears, so will I do to you. In this desert, your corpses shall fall; your entire number, all those from the age of twenty and up, who were counted, because you complained against Me… Your children shall wander in the desert for forty years and bear your defection until the last of your corpses has fallen in the desert.” According to the number of days which you toured the Land forty days, a day for each year, you will [thus] bear your iniquities for forty years; thus you will come to know My alienation.”

And the spies themselves? They died right then and there as a punishment for their actions.

Where did things go wrong?

Commentaries struggle with pinpointing what went wrong. Were the spies not sent to Israel in the first place so they can return with a report? What is it precisely that they said that evoked such strong emotions among the Israelites? What is it that upset Joshua and Caleb? What did they say that brought on them the wrath of God?

The answer lays in the actions of the Lishanky family: when it comes to Israel, what you see is what you get. The seeing, though, cannot be superficial. When looking at the land of Israel, you must look beyond the here and now. A land so Divine and spiritual must be seen through spiritual lenses. You cannot be a leader of the Jewish people and look and God’s promised land superficially, you must look deeper. And so, while the spies came back with what looked like a fairly superficial and benign report, it lacked perspective. When they saw some challenges and difficulties ahead of them, they saw those as they are, with no divine perspective, with no vision of potential. God realized that if the Israelites are looking for something that will come to them on a silver plate, the land of Israel is not for them. If, however, they see the potential beyond the immediate stumbling blocks, then the land is meant for them.

Interestingly, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (24 March 1795 – 16 October 1874), who is considered one of the founding fathers of religious Zionism, explains that the sin of the spies was an outcome of what they received. Anyone who comes into the land of Israel, and enjoys its fruit with no work or sacrifice, is sure to look down upon the gift of Israel. It is only with effort and sacrifice that one can come truly appreciate the gift of the land of Israel.

As we are blessed to live at a time in which Israel is stronger, safer, and more prosperous than ever let us not make the mistake of other generations; let us not take Israel for granted. Let us realize the work and effort that have gone into bringing Israel to where it is today and commit ourselves to the belief that with work and effort, the best is yet to come. Whether we live in Israel or not, let us make sure we always see the beauty within and not just on the surface. Let us always see Israel’s better tomorrow and make sure we are worthy of God’s blessings. Shabbat Shalom.

Most of the historical-familial aspects in this article were taken from the journal of Atara Sachin, Abromowitz which is dated 1964. Huge thanks to my cousin Sarah Abramowitz for making this information available to me.

See more historical information here, here, here, and here.

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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