Steve Rodan

When Nature Runs its Course

The Lord spoke to Moses saying, “Send out for yourself men who will scout 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.” [Numbers 13:1-2]

Let’s fantasize that your really rich uncle stops by with a 2024 brand new Rolls-Royce Droptail, the most expensive car in the world. Your uncle lets you sit in the driver’s seat and even take it for a spin to the end of the cul de sac. Then you both get out and he flips you the keys.

What’s the worst thing you could say short of rejecting the Rolls-Royce. How about, “Thanks Uncle Bob, but I first want to check this out with my mechanic.”

In this week’s Torah portion Shlach, the elite of the Children of Israel come to Moses and ask to first see the Land of Canaan before entering. They come with a story that their mission would be to find the vast wealth hidden by the seven nations, now in panic over the imminent arrival of the Jews. They reason that G-d had promised Israel the wealth and it would be such a pity if that promise was broken because the Jews couldn’t find the hiding places of the nations.

Now, Moses might not be crazy about the idea, but at heart he is a democrat and loath to deny what could be understood as a reasonable request. G-d clearly knows better although He agrees as well. But He places one condition: The men sent to look for the gold in Canaan must be the princes of the tribes. He wants to make sure that what will be done comes from the top.

And so the seeds of tragedy are sown — except this time they don’t come from the Egyptian emigrants, responsible for the Golden Calf and the obsessive demands for meat and vegetables. The tragedy stems from the Jewish-born leadership, trusted to govern their tribes and now determined to manipulate their brethren.

“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.” [Numbers 13:32]

It’s a tried-and-true method: Scare the people and they will be eating out of your hand. In 1898, the United States launched a war against Spain, then struggling to maintain control over Cuba. Washington saw an opportunity, and with the help of its friends in the media accused Spain of atrocities. When that didn’t work the fading European power was falsely charged with blowing up the USS Maine. Within months, the US conquered Cuba as well as Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. Not bad for a day’s work.

Moses faced a similar challenge. First, the tribal princes, known as spies, returned from Canaan to report that the land of the patriarchs could not be conquered. Then, they went on the background to defame Moses and anybody else who thought differently. The spies argued that the only way out was to return to Egypt, offer to resume slavery and hope for the best. In contrast, following Moses would mean the death of the Jewish people.

Two of the tribal princes knew that the game was rigged. Joshua and Caleb understood from the start that the fact-finding mission was actually a plot to torpedo the return of the Israelites to their land. But they were in a quandary: If they denounced the 10 others they could be attacked and left for dead in Canaan. If they pretended to go along then the narrative of the liars becomes accepted as fact.

Watching all this was G-d: Like your uncle, He meant only well. The divine miracles had ensured the survival of Israel, its liberation from Egypt, the birth of a nation, the receiving of the Torah, the supply of water, manna, clean clothes, mild weather — in other words everything. How did the Israelites forget all that so quickly?

All the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the entire congregation said, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert. Why does the Lord bring us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and children will be as spoils. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?” They said to each other, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!” [Numbers 14:2-4]

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak from Berdichev, in his work Kedushat Halevi, provides an answer: The Israelites recognized G-d’s miracles but wanted to go on their own. They wanted to take the natural route to enter Canaan. They wanted the thrill of achievement. That would mean learning everything they could about the seven nations.

In doing so, the Jews forgot the essential truth: Without G-d, the spies were right — there was no way to conquer Canaan, just as it would have been impossible to leave Egypt or escape Pharaoh at the Red Sea or battle Amalek. They were slaves and would always be slaves.

Now, G-d had a choice: He could destroy the Israelites and start all over again with Moses as leader. Moses begged for an alternative. The alternative was that G-d give up on the generation of the desert. They would not enter Canaan. Their children would — nearly 40 years later.

In this desert, your corpses shall fall; your entire number, all those from the age of 20 and up, who were counted, because you complained against Me. You shall [not] come into the Land concerning which I raised My hand that you would settle in it, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. [Numbers 14:29-30]

What if the Israelites could have turned back the hands of time? What if they would have listened to the report of their tribal leaders and then ask Moses what he thought? After all, Moses, rather than the princes, had taken the Jews out of Egypt, fought Amalek and brought them to Mount Sinai. What if they had believed Moses as they did at the parting of the Red Sea before thanking the princes for their mission?

Not too many years ago, a barren woman came to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, deemed the greatest halachist in the 20th Century. The woman’s husband had visited the rabbi repeatedly for a blessing, but nothing changed. Now, his wife demanded that the rabbi decree that G-d grant her a child.

Rabbi Feinstein was stunned: “I cannot tell G-d what to do.”

The woman cried and cried. Another rabbi in the room tried to console her but Rabbi Feinstein said the tears were good for her body and soul. Finally, Rabbi Feinstein said, “I cannot decree this, but I will say that in the merit of your faith in the power of Torah scholars — you deserve a child.”

The woman paused. “Rebbi, when?” she asked.

Rabbi Feinstein counted off the Hebrew months on his fingers. “Right after Hannukah.”

On the last day of the Festival of Lights, the woman gave birth. [Reb Moshe. Rabbi Shimon Finkelman. Page 471. Mesorah. 2011]

The lesson: When nature runs its course, the only alternative is faith.

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.
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