Joshua Gerstein

The Connection Between the People and the Land of Israel-Thoughts on Parshat Shelach

This week’s Torah portion recounts the tragic episode of the Jewish people’s scouting mission to the Land of Israel. The verses state: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying, “Send out for yourself men who will scout (וְיָתֻרוּ) the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel. You shall send one man each for his father’s tribe; each one shall be a chieftain in their midst.”(Bamidbar 13:1-2). A number of questions quickly surface during the reading of this chapter in Jewish history: Firstly, why the necessity to organize this scouting mission? Did God not promise the His people that He would lead them to a land “flowing with milk and honey?” Furthermore, we know that the tribal leaders returned with a scathingly negative report on the Land. This directly resulted in their immediate deaths, a 40 year period of wandering exile in the desert for the nation, a decree of extinction of an entire generation of men who believed their words and ultimately passed over the entering of the Land of Israel to the generation to come. What was the exact nature of the sin of the negative report that brought upon such a severe punishment?

Before we can begin to explain these questions, it first becomes important to understand the context of the unique connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. In the work “Reflections of the Rav,” Rav Soloveitchik is quoted as explaining this unbreakable bond as follows: “The union of the people of Israel with the land of Israel is comparable to a marriage. The crossing of the Jordan River involved more than a geographic movement; it represented a marriage between the people and the land, a union of rocky hills and sandy trails with the people whose future destiny is to this day bound up with the state and welfare of the land. Destinies were united, a joint sharing of honors and shame, victory and defeat; for all that transpires there affects the mood and status of Jews everywhere. In a human marriage, divorce or death can sever the relationship. The bond between the land and people, however, is for all time…”(The Singularity of the Land of Israel-Reflections of the Rav Volume 1 pg. 120-121) The People of Israel and the Land of Israel are not simply a nation and homeland, rather they are as intimately connected as a man to his beloved.

Further on this idea, Rav Soloveitchik provides a most insightful explanation as to the Jewish concept of marriage which so perfectly encapsulates the reasoning and necessity of the scouting mission to the Land of Israel found in this week’s Torah portion. He writes,“Marriage is not a utilitarian transaction, a partnership agreement, a causal relationship. It is an existential commitment, a uniting of two lonely, incomplete souls to share a common destiny with its joys and sorrows. It is not an association but an integration. Such a commitment cannot be based on transmitted data; what is involved concerns one’s body and soul, the inner personality finding itself attuned to another. It is a metaphysical fusion. Such a commitment, if it is to be wholehearted, without reservations, and for all time, can only be derived from first-hand knowledge…” Just as in a Halachic marriage there must be a face-to-face meeting between man and woman prior to their union in order to solidify the commitment of two souls, so too the Jewish people needed to meet the Land of Israel before entering into a “marriage” with their homeland.“By entering the land, the people were being wedded to it and therefore despite the Divine assurances of its quality, they had to experience it through their princes before the commitment could be deeply rooted and irrevocably assumed.”(ibid, pg. 121-22) This was the reason to undertake the scouting mission in the first place, to become acquainted with the Land and to establish the beginnings of an everlasting relationship. Note that the majority of the questions Moses missioned the Scouts to discover were designed to encourage the first seeds of this relationship: “You shall see what [kind of] land it is…And what of the land they inhabit? Is it good or bad…What the soil is like is it fat or lean? Are there any trees in it or not? You shall be courageous and take from the fruit of the land.” It was the season when the first grapes begin to ripen.” (Bamidbar13:18-20) The focus here is to discover the qualities and nature of the land itself – to become acquainted with her character — rather than to evaluate the militaristic challenges.

With this in mind, we can now answer our second question and explain the exact nature of the sin of the Scouts and the severity of the punishment. We established that the purpose of their mission was to set in motion the foundation for the metaphysical “marriage” between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel – and to begin the process of uniting their national destiny with their national homeland. However, with the negative report brought home by the Scouts, the exact opposite was achieved. Upon their return, they declared to the masses: “…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. But the men who went up with him said, “We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.” (Bamidbar 13:28, 31) They focused solely on the material challenges and lost sight of the deeper purpose of their journey. As Rav Soloveitchik so eloquently states: “With grandeur looking down on them, all they could see was the mundane.”(The Singularity of the Land of Israel-Reflections of the Rav Volume 1 pg.123) Instead of fostering the first seeds of an eternal relationship between nation and homeland, the Scouts’ report planted seeds of doubt within the minds and hearts of the people. And where there are doubts and negativity, a whole-hearted, eternal relationship cannot grow.

The punishment, therefore, was not overly severe but rather was a natural consequence of the entire tragic episode. The wandering years of exile in the desert witnessed the deaths of every man between the ages of 20-60 of the Scouts’ generation. It ushered in a new era, a younger generation of Jews who had not been unduly influenced or tainted by the negative report of the Scouts. This generation was wholly more fitting to “wed” the Land — they were able to recognize the inherent beauty within it and were able to foster a pure, timeless relationship with the Land of Israel.

In our time, we have the opportunity to repair the sin of the Scouts. In order to do this, we must take care to focus on the grandeur, not the mundane, and to do all we can to strengthen and perpetuate the everlasting relationship between our people and our national and spiritual homeland.

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator, and is the author of the Two Volume book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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