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The Jewish Identity Crisis

Can We Embrace Paradox?

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

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  • June 11, 2015
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  • 24 Sivan 5775
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Class Summary:

It was a promising moment that turned disastrous. Ten of the spies whom Moses had sent to spy out the land came back with a report calculated to demoralize the nation.

“We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large ... We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than He... The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height... We seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”

What did they mean, asks the Talmud, that the peoples in the Holy Land are mightier than He? Who is "He"? The Talmud explains that the spies were referring to G-d. Conquest of the Holy Land, said the spies, is beyond the capacity of the Almighty Himself!

At first glance, the story makes no sense. In all of history, one cannot encounter a generation whose lives were more saturated with Divine miracles than Moses' generation. These 10 spies, and all of the Jews they were addressing, had witnessed how Egypt, the most powerful nation on earth at the time, was devastated with 10 supernatural plagues. They experienced how this mighty empire was forced to free them because "the mighty hand" of G-d directly intervened - for the only time in history - to combat evil. Where did the spies go wrong?

​Dedicated in the loving memory of Elka bas Henya by her granddaughter 

 

If We Win?

An anecdote: The Israeli parliament, or Knesset, some years ago convened an emergency session to figure out a solution for the broken Israeli economy. One brilliant minister said, "Let's declare war on the U.S., and then, in the wake of the utter destruction America will bring upon us, we will receive billions of dollars for reconstruction, like Germany and Japan. "Sounds great," responded another member of the Knesset. "One problem: What will we do if we win the war?"

Disaster

It was a promising moment that turned disastrous. Ten of the spies whom Moses had sent to spy out the land came back with a report calculated to demoralize the nation.

“We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large ... We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than He... The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height... We seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”(1)

What did they mean, asks the Talmud, that the peoples in the Holy Land are mightier than He? Who is "He"? The Talmud explains (2) that the spies were referring to G-d. Conquest of the Holy Land, said the spies, is beyond the capacity of the Almighty Himself!

As a result, G-d informed Moses that the generation that left Egypt was not fit to enter the Land of Canaan. He decreed that the people should live out their lives as wanderers in the desert until a new generation could take up the challenge.(3)

What Really Happened?

At first glance, the story makes no sense. In all of history, one cannot encounter a generation whose lives were more saturated with Divine miracles than Moses' generation. These 10 spies, and all of the Jews they were addressing, had witnessed how Egypt, the most powerful nation on earth at the time, was devastated with 10 supernatural plagues. They experienced how this mighty empire was forced to free them because "the mighty hand" of G-d directly intervened - for the only time in history - to combat evil.

Just a short while before this debacle, these 10 men and all of their brethren saw how, when Pharaoh's armies pursued them, the sea split to let them pass and then drowned the Egyptians.

In the desert, the Bible describes (5) how miracles were the stuff of their daily lives: manna from heaven was their daily bread; “Miriam's well,” a miraculous stone which traveled along with the Israelite camp, provided them with water; and clouds of glory sheltered them from the desert heat and cold.

These were the people who, just a few months earlier, stood at the foot of Sinai and experienced, for the first and last time in history, how G-d revealed His presence to the entire nation. This generation was accustomed to G-d's miracles like New Yorkers are accustomed to parking tickets. For them not to acknowledge the supernatural powers of G-d was a blatant denial of reality.

Yet these very same people declared, "We cannot go up against those people for they are mightier than He (G-d)!"

Imagine if you had turned to one of these 10 spies as he was speaking of the impossibility of conquering the Land and had asked him, "What did you have this morning for breakfast"? He would certainly answer that it was the manna. When you'd ask him, "Did you purchase this manna in the grocery store?" he would look at you with astonishment and respond, "A store? No way! We receive our daily food from heaven."

"Really?" you'd persist. "And how exactly does food fall from heaven?" The man would probably respond, "Listen, young man. Let me present you with religion 101: G-d created the world and He owns nature. He knows how to make food fall from heaven, if He wishes it so."

Yet this very same spy, who had just enjoyed breakfast from heaven's kitchen and had just quenched his thirst from a miracle well, could stand before an entire nation and declare without hesitation, "Boys! We've got no hope to take over the Promised Land; G-d Himself can't help either. If we fight 'em, we are dead!"

The entire nation not only was convinced, but began mourning over its hopeless fate! And this is a people that just over a year prior, supernaturally crushed and defeated Egypt, the world's superpower! What is more, the Torah clearly states that the spies were no ordinary individuals: "They were all men of distinction, leaders of the children of Israel." What happened to them?

A Strange Response

There's one more important question. When the two faithful spies, Joshua and Caleb, challenged the conclusion of the other 10 spies, they used these words: "If G-d desires us, He will bring us to this Land and give it to us... But do not rebel against G-d! Fear not the people of the Land... G-d is with us; do not fear them." Why did they not make their point infinitely stronger by substituting their message of hope and faith with a message of facts and reality? Why did they not tell the Jews, "Don't you remember how we left Egypt? Have you forgotten how we crossed the Sea of Reeds? Don't you recall what you ate for breakfast this morning? Don't you see the clouds encircling you?"

Losing Intimacy

The first generation of Jews who left Egypt lived in a transcendental oasis. Encompassed by heavenly clouds, nourished with food from heaven, learning Divine wisdom from Moses, the greatest teacher of all time, and witnessing miracles on a daily basis transformed their lives into a veritable paradise on earth.

What would be their situation in the land? They would have to fight wars, plough the land, plant seed, gather harvests, create and sustain an army, an economy and a welfare system. They would have to do what every other nation does: live in the real world of empirical space. What then would happen to their relationship with G-d? Yes, He would still be present in the rain that made crops grow, in the blessings of field and town, and in the Temple in Jerusalem that they would visit three times a year, but not visibly, intimately, miraculously, as He was in the desert. This is what the spies feared. Their underlying problem with the land, as the spies expressed in dramatic prose, was that "it is a land that consumes its inhabitants." The stress of physical life and running a country will destroy our spiritual creativity and numb our souls.

Either Or

Now we can well understand the spies' argument that "We cannot go up against these people, for they are mightier than He," notwithstanding all the miracles they experienced. We cannot have it both ways, argued the spies. Either we are to be a spiritual people engaged exclusively in spiritual pursuits and sustained by supernatural means, or else we are to enter the natural world of the farmer, merchant, and soldier and become subject to its laws.

The spies argued that if G-d wishes for us to live a spiritual life, then, certainly, He can sustain us with miracles as He has in the past. But if His desire is that we abandon our supra-natural existence to enter the land and assume a life inside the constraints of nature, then He Himself essentially has decreed that natural law will govern our fate. In that case, they argued, He cannot empower us to miraculously conquer the land, since were He to do so, this would defeat the entire purpose of entering the "land." Nature dictates that we will not be able to defeat the thirty-one mini Empires that dominate the land. So, the spies concluded, "they are mightier than He;" even G-d cannot help us if He Himself has chosen to transform us from celestial nomads into a materially structured nation.

A Question of Identity

The confusion of the spies is at the heart of a struggle confronting the Jewish psyche for close to 4,000 years to this very day. Who are we and what is our role in the world is? Should we be insular or integrated? Parochial or universal? Ought we to live in our own orbit or are we part of the family of nations? Are we the Chosen People, or are we just another “normal” ethnic tribe? Who is the Jew—a fragment of eternity or a contemporary people?

This is also a personal question. We enjoy the pleasures of money, sexuality, food, fame, sport, leisure, music, art, literacy and knowledge, as any good gentile. Yet when we define ourselves purely in physical terms, we experiences an illogical emptiness. Even if we convince ourselves that we are part and parcel of ordinary society, non-Jews often remind us that there is something "different" about the Jew.

Who am I?

The Bridge

One cannot begin to answer the question of Jewish identity if one is not comfortable with the notion of paradox. Which as we know today defines the core of our universe.

The first generation of Israelites who left Egypt could understand the Jew as a creature of heaven or as a creature of earth. He is either living in a space of miracles or in the real world governed by hard core nature.

But the objective of Judaism is to serve as a link that interlaces heaven and earth. The Jew was chosen to become the bridge between the spiritual and the mundane, between soul and body, and between G-d and money. His/her role is to become a rope that links the holy to the unholy; that transforms the unholy into holy. Heaven is not our destination and earth is not our prison. We are here to reveal the undefined unity that integrates them.(5)   

The entire role of the Jew is to imbue our plowing, sowing and commerce with a holy and G-dly purpose; to create a land that is holy, to make the ordinary extraordinary.(6) In Judaism, the conflict between religion sciences is superficial. Science, the laws of nature, are also Divine. All of the cosmos is a mirror of Divine unity.

This was the message of Joshua and Caleb, the two faithful spies who believed that the Jews would be triumphant in their attempt to settle their land. They could not discuss the miraculous past of the people, for the spies were exploring the natural future of the same people. What Joshua and Caleb said was, "If G-d desires us, He will bring us to this Land and give it to us... But do not rebel against G-d! Fear not the people of the Land, for they are our bread... G-d is with us; do not fear them." In other words, though G-d desires from us to become part of the natural world while employing natural means for our survival, let us remember that if we follow G-d's course, He will allow His supernatural light to flow through the natural channels of politics, economics and military prowess.

A Child’s Wish

One of my favorite anecdotes is about the little boy who wanted $100 so badly that he prayed for two weeks, but nothing happened. He decided to write a letter to the Lord requesting the $100. When the postal authorities received the letter addressed to "Lord, USA," they decided to send it to the President of the US.

President Obama was so impressed, touched, and amused that he instructed his secretary to send the little boy a $5 bill. Mr. Obama thought this would appear to be a lot of money to a little boy.

The little boy was delighted with the $5 and sat down to write a thank-you note to the Lord, which read:

"Dear Lord,

"Thank you very much for sending me the money. It's just a pity you had to send it through Washington, D.C. and, as usual, those morons deducted $95."

The boy got it right. The money comes through Washington, not from Washington.(7)

1) Numbers 13: 27-33 2) Soteh 35a. 3) This story occurred one year after the Exodus of Egypt in 2448. The spies were sent on the 29th of Sivan, the year after the Exodus, and returned forty days later on the eve of the 9th of Av. 4) All of these stories are recorded in detail in the book of Exodus and in various Midradshim. See Michilta to Exodus 13:21; 15:22; Sifri to Numbers 10:34; Bamidbar Rabah 1:2; Tanchumah Beshalach 3 and 18; Yalkut Shimono Remez 255 and 729. 5) See Derech Metzvosecha Mitzvas Tzitzis. 6) Despite this, G-d placed Moses' generation in a totally spiritual environment, as a preparation to then entering and settling the land. For to sanctify the land, one requires a time in which he is isolated from the material. However, this phase of our national existence was not an end in itself, but the way in which to acquire the tools and resources to miraculize the natural and elevate the everyday. 7) This essay is based on: Likkutei Torah Shlach and an address by the Lubavithcer Rebbe, Shabbas Shelach 5722 (June 30 1962) Published in Likkutei Sichos vol. 4 pp. 1041-1047.Cf. Chidushei Harim and Sefas Emes Shlach.

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    hello -3 years ago

    i love it

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Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • June 11, 2015
  • |
  • 24 Sivan 5775
  • |
  • 1401 views
  • Comment
​Dedicated in the loving memory of Elka bas Henya by her granddaughter 

 

Class Summary:

It was a promising moment that turned disastrous. Ten of the spies whom Moses had sent to spy out the land came back with a report calculated to demoralize the nation.

“We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large ... We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than He... The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height... We seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”

What did they mean, asks the Talmud, that the peoples in the Holy Land are mightier than He? Who is "He"? The Talmud explains that the spies were referring to G-d. Conquest of the Holy Land, said the spies, is beyond the capacity of the Almighty Himself!

At first glance, the story makes no sense. In all of history, one cannot encounter a generation whose lives were more saturated with Divine miracles than Moses' generation. These 10 spies, and all of the Jews they were addressing, had witnessed how Egypt, the most powerful nation on earth at the time, was devastated with 10 supernatural plagues. They experienced how this mighty empire was forced to free them because "the mighty hand" of G-d directly intervened - for the only time in history - to combat evil. Where did the spies go wrong?

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