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Thursday, June 23, 2005

Shelach - Two Stories, One Will of God

ויאמר משה: למה זה אתם עוברים את פי ה', והיא לא תצלח. אל תעלו, כי אין ה' בקרבכם, ולא תנגפו לפני אויביכם

(במדבר י"ד,מ"א-מ"ב)

Every year, in countless synagogues around the world, this week's parasha seemingly serves as an injection of encouragement to those whose spirits are low in face of the continuous struggle between Israelis and Palestinians over control of parts of Israel. Zionist Rabbis will use the story of the meragelim, the spies that Moshe sent across the Jordan to gather information in preparation for entering the promised land, in order to "prove" that the "Jewish way" is not to give up in face of presssure and certainly not offer any compromises to the other side.

Against the majority opinion of their ten counterparts, Yehoshua and Kalev insisted that the Land is conquerable and that the people should not fear the inhabitants of Canaan. They should place their trust in God, who promised them they will conquer the Land. The rest, as we know, is history: the people wailed all night, God got angry, and promised these people will not live to see the Promised Land. So instead of entering Canaan bnei Israel turned back and wandered around the desert for another 38 years. The Midrash marked this night as a terrible night for generations; both Temples were destroyed on that same day, the 9th of Av.

The morale of this story, the rabbis will intone, is relevant to us today more than ever. Those who speak of withdrawal from the Gaza strip and other "conquered territories" are to be likened to the ten spies who had no faith in God and convinced the people they cannot win this war. We who know better, will conclude the rabbis, are like Yehoshua and Kalev; we place our trust in God and will not give back one inch of land, come what may.

Very few rabbis will urge us to read on further in the parasha, lest we encounter another less famous story, the one of the ma'apilim (literally: the ones who go up). Immediately after that fateful night of weeping, a few brave souls decide that despite God's words they should climb the mountains lying between them and the Land of Israel, and fight the natives. Moshe warns them:

And Moses said: 'Why now do you transgress the commandment of the LORD, seeing it shall not prosper? Go not up, for the LORD is not among you; that you be not smitten down before your enemies.

(BaMidbar 14, 41-21)

The ma'apilim thought they knew better. After all, was not the Land promised to them by God? Did not Yehoshua and Kalev say that they should go forward and conquer it? Surely God will be on their side and help them win, despite Him being angry right now. It turned out exactly as Moses has predicted: they were slaughetered by the Canaanites and the Amalekites. God was not "among them" and they lost.

>The morale from these two stories - the meragelim and the ma'apilim - is that the Land of Israel holds no value in and of itself. Conquering the Land is not an automatic outcome of God's eternal promise to His people. What matters is what God is telling us to do and whether God is "among us". That, and only that, is the absolute truth we must adhere to. If God says: "go forward and conquer the Land", as He did with the meragelim, we should do so. But when He says: "do not go", we should also listen and hold back. The underlying assumption of the vast majority of Zionist religious Jews in Israel is that God is telling us today to "go!", and on this assumption they base their beliefs and urge us to imitate the spirit of Yehoshua and Kalev.

But how valid is this assumption? In our age of hester panim, when God does not reveal Himself to us neither directly nor indirectly (through prophets), can we be 100% sure that this is indeed His will? What if it happens to be a "no go" instruction, just as with the ma'apilim? Wouldn't we be going against God's will?

This is a big question and it merits a lengthy study. Not wanting to create unnecessary polemics, suffice it to say at this point that it is far from certain, in my opinion, that we can determine with no doubts that we live in an age of "go". Reading the Prophets and analysing the realities facing Israeli society today (which are the only valid tools we have for tackling this question) may indeed lead to a conclusion that we live in an age of "no go" and in such case we would be going against God's will by insisting to oppose every peace initiative. I heartily wish that more caution and restraint were used by Zionist religious rabbis in Israel when addressing such matters.

I gave this devar Torah last year, based on an article by R. Amnon Bazak from Gush Etzion.


Cosmic X said...

The settlement of the land of Israel is a halachic obligation as established by the Ramban and the absolute majority of Poskim. This means that we are in a continuous "go" situation as long as there is a reasonable chance of success. The precarious security situation in Israel today is the result of the stupidity of the Israeli government which imported terrorists into our midst and gave them guns and land. Even so, the settlers of the 1880s were in a much more precarious situation than the settlers of Gaza today, yet they persevered. The results are the State of Israel today.

Yes, we lack prophecy today, but the history of the last 150 years seems to indicate that G-d has openned the doors of the and of Israel for the Jewish People. It's up to us if we want to stay in the desert or not. BTW, what in the world are you doing in Japan?

Sharvul said...

Cosmic X,

Thank you for your comment.

You have articulated well the position of the majority of Zionist-Religious Jews. The argument, as you well know, is around the issue mentioned in your 2nd sentence: "as long as there is a reasonable chance of success".


Jameel @ The Muqata said...

It would seem from your posting that you have articulated the position of the majority of Ultra Orthodox Jews.

I would assume that you are intellectually honest enough to apply your own logic towards the entire Secular Zionist enterprise of colonial settlement expansionism throughout British Mandatory Palestine.

What gall the Jewish people must have had in the 1880's to defy the millenium old "no go" clause and in such case be would be going against God's will by insisting on settling the land of Israel -- with all the trappings involved in Arab population transfer, destruction of Arab towns, the creation of Arab refugees, and destruction of Moslem places of worship.

Perhaps if the Zionist enterpise excersized more caution and restraint, the Arab world would not hate us, there wouldn't be a boycott against us, and we could continue to live peacefully as Jews under Arab rule, as we used to since the Founding of Islam.

Sharvul said...


The answer is in your question. You fail to distinguish beween the secular and the pseudo-religious motives for "Zionism".

The legitimate, secular nationalistic movement of Zionism does not conflict with the "three shevu'ot for the simple reason that the first Zionists could not have cared less about "God's will"! Hence they had no "gall", aside from the gall inherent in every nationalistic movement in history.

It was only after the "new Zionists" decided to jump, somewhat belatedly, on the nationalistic bandwagon (after 1967), that the narrative of a national home for the Jewish people suddenly became "the will of God".

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Sharvul: I do not care about the answer of the Secular Zionists to the three shevu'ot, since you posed the question, and not them.

How can you accept the legitamcy of the secular Zionist movement while rejecting that of Religious Zionist nationalism?

Also, I'm sure you are aware that Religious Zionism, even the nationalistic streams of it, are far from monolithic.

The mindset of the "settlers" is far from monolithic.

Sharvul said...

Jameel: How can you accept the legitamcy of the secular Zionist movement while rejecting that of Religious Zionist nationalism?

Here's how:

1. There is a huge difference in my mind between a situation where there is NO Jewish state to one where a state exists. It is one thing to argue for the fulfillment of a nationalistic dream when you have nothing, to argue for it when you have almost everything.

2. I have no problem with any nationalistic claim, as long as it is not wrapped in a (pseudo)religious, "this-is-the-will-of-God" argument. Once it is, I find it close to being chilul ha-shem, especially given the fact that there are observant, faithful Jews (among them some illustrious rabbis) who believe otherwise.

Jameel: The mindset of the "settlers" is far from monolithic.

Of course it is.

I'm referring to the small, but extremely loud, minority that for the past 39 years has been holding the entire country hostage to its fanatic, messianic ideas of redemption through the worship of land.