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The Impossible Dream?


Shlach (Numbers 13-15 )

by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

What went wrong with the spies?

The Israeli government has a spy in France named Goldstein. They want to send him a message, so they call in another spy and say, "Go over to France and you'll find Goldstein living in an apartment at 16 Champs Elysee. To make sure there's no mix-up, when you meet him, say the secret password: 'The blue bird flies over the cloudy sky.'"

The spy flies to France and takes a taxi to 16 Champs Elysee. He walks up the steps to the apartment building, looks at the mailboxes, and lo and behold – there are two Goldsteins!

So the spy flips a coin and tries the Goldstein on the first floor. An old man answers. The spy says nervously, " Umm ... the blue bird ... umm ... flies over the cloudy sky!" The old man thinks for a moment and says, "Oh, you want Goldstein the spy – he lives upstairs!"

The Bread of Shame

This week's parsha features the famous story of the 12 spies – one from each tribe – who are sent into Israel. Their mission seems rather innocuous at first: Determine a strategy for battling the Canaanites and settling 3 million men, women and children in the new land. The spies are sent (ostensibly) to survey practical matters like geography, opportunities for farming and commerce, the best access routes, etc.

Yet there's an obvious question: Since God had long ago promised to give the Jews the Land of Israel, and it was God Who had so ably led them to this point (arranging the Ten Plagues and splitting the Sea) – what were the Jews worried about? Did they really need strategic military data to conquer the land? Of course not! So why didn't they just walk in confidently and let God handle all the details?

The answer is that God gives us a gift: the chance to be involved and partner in the process. It's what every human being longs for.

Imagine being the child of a billionaire, always getting handed everything on a silver platter. How would it feel? Great!

For awhile. But then you'd start to feel what the Sages call the "Bread of Shame." You'd feel unworthy and unfulfilled. You'd want to make your own contribution and earn the reward. Because human nature is such that we need to roll up our sleeves and "do it ourselves."

Does "do it yourself" mean leaving God out of the picture? No! Judaism teaches that life is a two-track system: Track One is human effort and involvement; Track Two is the will of God. In order to succeed, we need both working in tandem. Because while we contribute to the process, the ultimate result depends on God.

Here Go the Spies...

So the 12 spies are sent on their merry way. In Israel, God shows them encouraging signs that the land is indeed plentiful and rich: Clusters of grapes so enormous that eight men are needed to carry it (Numbers 13:23). God also makes sure the spies encounter heavily fortified Cananite cities – which in fact is a sign of Cananite weakness, since anyone who is truly powerful does not need to hide behind walls. (See Rashi on 13:19)

Additionally, God planned the death of a Cananite nobleman to coincide with the spies' visit, in order to busy the locals with funeral arrangements and mourning – as a way to divert their attention from the reconnaissance mission! Everything was perfectly orchestrated; nothing could possibly go wrong.

Yet somehow, things do go wrong. After 40 days, the spies come back and recommend against entering the land: "We can't succeed because everything is huge!" – a reference to the gigantic fruits. "The land devours its inhabitants!" – a reference to the funeral. "The people are too strong!" – a reference to the heavily fortified walls. (See Numbers 13:31-33)

The Jews accept the report, and give up their dream of going into Israel. The consequence? If you don't want to enter the land, says God, then you won't enter the land. All Israelites will die out over the next 40 years in the desert, and only their children will enter the land.

What Went Wrong?

The spies lost their anchor. They got so wrapped up in the pragmatics of conquering the land, that they took God out of the equation – and never put Him back in! The original question they'd been assigned to answer – "How to conquer the land" – suddenly became a question of "should we or shouldn't we."

What caused this twist to occur?

God's presence was palpable in the desert: a rock provided a steady supply of water, Clouds of Glory kept enemies at bay, and a daily supply of manna fell from heaven. Yet these "open miracles" were to cease upon entry into Israel. Thus, the spies reasoned, God's guidance and protection would cease as well.

From this skewed perspective, all the positive signs that God had shown them – the fruits, the funeral and the city walls – were turned into negatives. From a purely pragmatic perspective, their conclusion was – not surprisingly – "This is not possible!"

Moses, the great leader, foresaw this danger. So before the spies departed on their mission, he changed the name of "Hoshea" to "Yehoshua" (Joshua). The name "Yehoshua" means "God will save." It also begins with the letters of God's Name – Yud and Heh. This was Moses' attempt to keep the spies focused on that crucial transcendent connection.

To some extent, Moses was successful; Joshua was one of two spies who protested the negative report – and was rewarded with entry into the land.

Process of Self-Destruction

From the story of the spies, we can see how losing one's connection with God can trigger a tragic process of self-destruction.

Stage One of this process is losing confidence is one's ability to succeed. This is evident from the spies report: "We were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes" (Numbers 13:33). The spies, convinced they have no chance of success, saw themselves as grasshoppers – which the Canaanites reflected back in turn.

In Stage Two, we see the spies rattling off a litany of excuses and recriminations – and even indicting Moses for taking them out of Egypt (Numbers 14:2)! To avoid great disappointment in themselves, they needed to rationalize "reasons" for their failure.

In Stage Three, the spies "wake up" and realize the opportunity they've squandered. Unable to bear the great disappointment and failure, they "heroically" declare: "Now let's enter the land" (Numbers 14:40). They desperately want to recapture the lost opportunity. But Moses informs them it's too late, the opportunity is gone, and any attempt to enter the land contrary to God's decree is certain to end in tragedy.

Stage Four is the final and most painful. The spies cannot bear living with failure for the rest of their lives. Death itself is a more comforting option. So they enter the land anyway only to be slaughtered by the natives (Numbers 14:45). Going down in a blaze of glory satisfies their egos ... but destroys their lives.

The Crucial Connection

This dynamic can appear in our own lives as well.

Each of us has a "life vision" – what impact we maximally hope to make. The Torah teaches that when one's "vision" is driven by a connection with God, then the ability to achieve transcends all boundaries. Since God can do anything, all success depends only on His will.

Without that connection, one's ability to achieve is defined by mortal limitations. It is logical, therefore, to assume that many goals are not possible. Hence the expression, "I can't do it. It's impossible."

But it needn't be that way.

Not long ago, I was in an unusual circumstance which necessitated my travelling 16 miles on a Saturday. Since I don't drive on Shabbat, the only way to travel the 16 miles was by walking. It took five hours but I did it. There were certainly many points along the way where I thought to just stop and quit. My shins hurt. I wanted to lie down in the grass or find a taxi. The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that I was doing a mitzvah. Otherwise, I am certain I would never have made it.

The Torah tells us that when Batya (Pharaoh's daughter) went down to the Nile River and saw the baby Moses floating in the basket, "she stretched out her hand" (Exodus 2:5). The Talmud derives that although the basket was in the middle of the river, miraculously her arm grew long enough to reach it.

Says the Kotzker Rebbe: This teaches us that even if a situation seems hopeless, we need only to make our best honest effort, and if God wants us to succeed, He will go ahead and make a miracle.

Living in accordance with the will of God gives one the confidence to know that the more you are connected, the greater will be your degree of transcendence. And then, anything is possible.

What the Future Holds

This theme is reflected in the Land of Israel today. A tiny country the size of New Jersey is surrounded by 220 million Arabs, many who are still committed to Israel's destruction. Pragmatically, there is no reason to expect we could survive here ... unless God is part of the picture.

Our nation has seen that God can do anything. When the Israeli armed forces defeated Arab armies in a scant Six Days, we knew quite clearly that we'd exceeded our mortal limitations. As David Ben-Gurion said: "A Jew who does not believe in miracles is not a realist."

The incident of the spies took place on "Tisha B'Av," the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av. Hundreds of years later, the destruction of the First Temple was to occur on Tisha B'Av. And 500 years after that, the Second Temple was destroyed on Tisha B'Av as well. Unfortunately, it is a recurring theme in Jewish history: We lose sight of our connection to God, forfeit that anchor, and descend into a mode of finger-pointing incriminations, excuses, and ultimately, national suicide.

Today, do the Jewish people still believe in the possibility of our national dream? Or are we subconsciously sabotaging ourselves in order to ease the possible disappointment of failure?

Time will tell whether we find our anchor, get on track, and succeed in building a national Jewish consciousness that can stand up against the forces which lure us away from our vision and dream.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

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