How could it have happened? Is it conceivable that after the build-up to the People of Israel finally entering and inheriting the land promised to their forefathers, the entire enterprise would come to a tragic and grinding halt?
The book of Genesis is liberally strewn with God’s assurances that Abraham’s descendants will inherit the Land of Israel. Through the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and half of Numbers, the preparations for the triumphal and miraculous march into the Holy Land occupy center stage.
And then, inexplicably, it is over. The generation that left Egypt amidst unprecedented and wondrous events will not enter the Promised Land. That will only occur after those 20 and older perish in the desert. It is the next generation that will inherit the Land.
And the most shocking aspect of the story is that the Jewish people themselves refuse to enter the Land. They are seemingly so traumatized by the intimidating report of the spies concerning the physical prowess and size of the Canaanite warriors that they lose all heart, weep throughout the night, and unequivocally state, “We will not go up!”
We are all familiar with the story. We read it each year. And yet, it can not fail to confound us. After all the manifestations of God’s might and power in nearly destroying Egypt in order to free his beloved people, how can they possibly doubt His ability to bring them into the land? Was it their timorous slave mentality that refused to allow them to trust in themselves, in their nation, in their God? Or is there another element here, a more pervasive failing, one that will continue to haunt the Jewish people to this very day?
In his work on the weekly Torah readings, Hegyona Shel Torah (The Wisdom of the Torah), Rabbi Ben Zion Firer offers a fascinating and rather troubling insight into this conundrum. In an essay on this week’s parsha of Shelach, he explores and contrasts the two narratives concerning the incident of the spies. The first appears in this parsha, the second in chapter 1 of the book of Deuteronomy.
The first version is the “objective” one, told as it happened in real time. The second is part of Moses’ final address to the nation in the month before he dies. In comparing the story in Numbers with that in Deuteronomy, a startling omission appears. In the original rendition, the spies return from their mission and begin their report by extolling the fruits and the fertility of the land. Then, they utterly demolish their praise with tales of the strong fortifications of the Canaanite cities and the power and size of the enemy. They struck fear in the hearts of the Children of Israel. They proceed to warn the people that Canaan is “a land that devours its inhabitants.” At this point, the people weep through the night, totally disheartened.
Such is the story in this week’s portion. However, in the retelling in Deuteronomy, Moses recalls the spies’ reports in this fashion: “…they brought back word to us and said, ‘Good is the Land that Hashem, our God, gives us.’” That’s it. That is how Moses records the spies’ report. That verse is followed by “and you did not wish to ascend, and you rebelled against the word of Hashem, your God…” Not a word about the negative and frightening report with which the spies terrified the people. As if the spies only told of the goodness of the Land, and yet, the nation rejected it.
Why would Moses not record the only possible explanation for the people’s reaction? Why would the leader who always pleaded the cause of the nation, ignore the only possible justification for their fear of the Canaanites and rejection of the land? Rabbi Firer suggests that the people of Israel were unwilling to enter the land because they had been warned several times that their continued presence in the land would be contingent on their obeying the laws of the Torah and on living ethical and moral lives. Just as God had given them the land, so might He remove them from the land if their future misbehavior warranted it. In other words, the price for living in the Holy Land was one they were not willing to pay.
We can find support for this idea in the event that follows God’s pronouncement of the tragic decree that the present generation would, indeed, not ascend to the Promised Land. Hearing that they have lost God’s support in entering the land under His protection, they attempt to enter the land on their own initiative, despite Moses’ warning that the attempt would be doomed to fail. And it does fail, tragically.
If the people were terrified of facing the enemy while under God’s protection, asks Rabbi Firer, why would they attempt to do so when His protection was removed? His conclusion is that fear of the Canaanites was an excuse, masking a deep ambivalence towards the land. A beautiful and fruitful land “flowing with milk and honey” that, at the same time, makes demands of its inhabitants. Therefore, the people preferred attempting to enter the land “on their own,” rather than under the protection of God, which brought with it the “price tag” of fealty to the Torah and the obligation of being a Holy People and a “Light onto the Nations.”
This ambivalence of the people towards its wondrous but demanding land has haunted the annals of Jewish history. Despite the fact that the exiles wept “by the waters of Babylon” when they remembered Zion, most Jews of the Babylonian and Persian exiles did not return to the Land when given the opportunity by Cyrus. Only a small minority of the Jews returned to build the Second Temple.
For many centuries, life in the Promised Land was harsh and difficult for Jews living under the rule of successive foreign powers. Understandably, few Jews were unwilling to do so. Yet, there were always some who felt that the privilege of living in the Holy Land outweighed the hardships of doing so.
However, even when opportunities to live in the Promised Land in improved ways began to appear, only a very small minority of Jews in the world attempted to do so. Today, the attractions of living in Israel have proliferated, while the threats of living elsewhere have increased. And still, the ambivalence of the people to its land continues.
According to tradition, the incident of the spies occurred on the Ninth of Av, which was to be the date of the destruction of the two Temples. Rejection of the land and rejection of our spiritual heritage are inseparable. The lessons of this week’s parsha have yet to be absorbed.