David Harbater
Author, educator and scholar

When things in Israel are bad: Two responses

Unless one is living in a cave, it should be obvious to all that things in Israel are bad, very bad. Since October 7, roughly 1,500 Israeli citizens have been killed including over 650 soldiers, 120 are still being held hostage by Hamas in unimaginable conditions, Hezbollah missiles and drones have been raining down on the north and destroying homes, ruining towns, setting entire areas on fire and displacing over 60,000 people, and there is no end in sight. To make matters worse, our government appears to be utterly dysfunctional and inept as it has yet to formulate a plan for the “day after” and has focused instead on petty politics, and our Prime Minister continues to do things that infuriate and alienate our closest allies. The Iranians are moving closer than ever before to developing nuclear weapons, the ICC has issued a warrant for the arrest of both the prime and defense ministers, and Israel has largely become a pariah state.

Although the Supreme Court’s recent ruling requiring the military to begin drafting charedi men helped calm some of the internal tensions that have been bubbling over recently, it is not clear how, and when, this ruling will be implemented. Furthermore, there are still other tensions, such as those between the protesters and the police, between those in favor of judicial reform and those who are opposed, and around the nature and timing of a commission to investigate the failures that led to October 7, that have not been resolved and will surely (re)surface at some point in the not too distant future.

Given the difficult and seemingly untenable situation in which Israel finds itself these days the question one may ask is, why bother? Although things are not particularly good for Jews in many other countries either, to say the least, why not look for a place to live that is less stressful, less frightening and less dangerous? Why put up with so much bad when there might be better options elsewhere? I believe that this question is at the heart of the story of the scouts about which we read this week in Parashat Shelach.

After returning from their scouting mission in the land of Canaan, ten of the leaders of Israel reported that the land is flowing with milk and honey and they proceeded to show the people some of its fruit. They then continued by saying, “However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites (probably a reference to giants) there” (Numbers 13:28). Now, while this report seems to be factual, the insertion of the word “However” in the middle should be construed as a subtle attempt to highlight the negative, and as a reflection of their desire to discourage the people from moving forward. Alert to this slight verbal manipulation, Caleb, the leader of the tribe of Judah, tried to nip the problem in the bud by adamantly insisting “Let us go by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it” (Numbers 13:30).

Concerned that Caleb might succeed in convincing the people, the ten scouts now allowed their emotions and fears to get the better of them: “We cannot attack the people, for it is stronger than we… the country that we traversed is one that devours its settlers…” (Numbers 13:31-32). In other words, while the claim that the nations inhabiting the land are strong was true, the claim that they are “stronger than we” and that the land “devours its settlers” was not. Such conclusions seem to reflect their lack of faith in God and in themselves, and it is this subjective and emotional response that they then communicated to the people and that led the latter to rebel against Moses and declare their intention to return to Egypt.

Terrified by the peoples’ about-face, Caleb and Joshua rent their clothes and turned to the people emphasizing the goodness of the land, despite the report of the other scouts to the contrary, and that with God’s help they can overcome their enemies, no matter how large and powerful they may be. In other words, it is not that Caleb and Joshua were belittling the challenges and difficulties that may lie ahead, but rather they were trying to encourage the people to muster the internal strength, the courage, and the faith in God, to move forward nonetheless.

Thus, the Torah in the story of the scouts presents two contrasting responses to the challenge of living in the land when things there are extraordinarily difficult: the first focuses on the bad rather than on the good and allows fear and anxiety to overwhelm and the second highlights the good and insists that, with faith and determination, one can overcome.

I believe that we, in Israel today, are faced with the same two options. Things are bad and may even get worse before they get better, but what does that mean for us? Do we give in to our worries and fears, legitimate as they may be, and seek a solution elsewhere, or do we overcome them and do whatever is necessary to ensure Israel’s survival and success, ki ein lanu eretz acheret – because we have no other land?

If the ultimate fate of each of the two groups of scouts is any indication, the answer should be abundantly clear.
About the Author
Rabbi Dr. David Harbater's recently published book "In the Beginnings: Discovering the Two Worldviews Hidden within Genesis 1-11" is available on Amazon and at book stores around Israel and the US. He teaches Bible and Jewish thought at Midreshet Torah V'Avodah, at the Amudim Seminary, and at the Women's Beit Midrash of Efrat. Make sure to follow him on Facebook and LinkedIn for more interesting content.
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