It took a long time to complete the conquest of the Promised Land. According to the narrative of the book of Joshua it was seven years of military campaigning followed by another seven years of settlement distribution. Even then much of the land remained in the hands of indigenous tribes. The small nation of Israel had ongoing wars, mostly defensive, in and around its borders for centuries, until King David consolidated control of the land and brought the expanded borders under his unified reign. Jerusalem itself was not conquered by Israel for over three hundred years, eventually taken by King David who then established Jerusalem as the capital of his kingdom.
An undertaking such as moving into a new territory is daunting, and the nation clearly had some apprehension about it. They had grown comfortable in their wilderness existence, in a temporary arrangement similar to a refugee camp. The welfare system was unmatched, with room service providing daily meals (left outside the door so as not to disturb), and a continuous flow of water from a mysterious well that followed the camp throughout their travels. The temperature was kept comfortably mild, with clouds blocking the heat of the sun as well as the night chill. Medical care was all but unnecessary, as sickness generally was kept outside the camp environment (aside from some localized plagues that were brought under control quickly by means of burning incense). One could excuse the nation for not wishing to leave this environment.
When push came to shove this apprehension was exposed, dominating the people’s response to the report of the spies, most of whom described the land as unconquerable by Israel. As a result of their despair the nation was sentenced to remain in the temporary wilderness camp for 40 years, including time already served. But something doesn’t add up. If my illustration above is correct the nation was not in fact punished; they were given precisely what they wished for – an extended stay in Wilderness Camp, with all amenities and services continuing.
The commentaries all seek to understand how Israel fell to despair. How did they doubt their ability to conquer the land with God’s help? The one point upon which there appears to be complete agreement is that Israel had reached a low. Their destination from the outset was to reach the Promised Land. An ancient spirit of Zionism was at fever pitch, and the Torah’s narrative implies that only a fear for their lives held them back from running across the border. Moses himself was heartbroken when he learned that he would not be allowed to enter the land. There must be more to the story than we see on the surface.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks directs us to a unique interpretation of the events offered by Hassidic thinkers. While most commentators attribute Israel’s reluctance to a failure in faith, to some kind of fear that they were unworthy or incapable of the conquest and subsequent independence, Hassidic masters dismiss the notion that the great leaders of Israel had such faults. Fear of change is natural, but that would not have deterred Israel’s leaders from pushing forward to reach their destiny and desire. The leaders were not lacking in faith. These spies were hand chosen for the task of scouting the land and bringing their reports back to the people. Commentaries point out that these were not the same leaders listed in previous sections of the Torah. These leaders possessed the qualities necessary for such reconnaissance. They were masters of strategy and were capable of diagnosing the most appropriate tactics for Israel’s invasion of the land.
The discouraging report of the spies was not a reflection of fear, according to this approach. It was not a reflection of melting hearts that we imagine these scouts to have suffered from. It was rather a reflection of a resolve to remain in the wilderness – but not for the sake of material comfort. They desired to remain people of the wilderness rather than become landowners and business corporates. They recoiled from the upcoming responsibilities that would inevitably accompany the conquest of Israel. The spies brought the fruits of the land back with them, enormous fruits, to illustrate to the people the work ahead. Unlike other commentaries, this approach does not see the spies as attempting to instil fear into the nation by showing them how forbidding a territory it is. The size of the fruit was not meant to illustrate the power of the land’s inhabitants, it was rather a demonstration of what their energy would need to focus on once they entered the land. They would not be pursuing spiritual heights, as they did in the wilderness. They would be cultivating produce. Their time would be subsumed developing irrigation technology to water their fields. They would need to clear swamps, build roads, drill for oil. They would need to raise an army, build homes and study medicine.
This is what the spies feared. They were content while enveloped in the clouds of glory, eating manna from heaven and drinking water from Miriam’s well. They were under God’s wing, cared for and provided for. Their existence was devoted to spiritual growth, and they did not want to give that up and move into the real world.
So what was the problem with that? Isn’t that a noble desire? Why should they give up their divinely graced life and turn to mundane pursuit of survival in a land that required so much physical cultivation?
The answer speaks to the heart of our task in life. What is a Jew’s role in the world? Is it to remain secluded and protected from human civilization? Are we to reside within monasteries and live our lives as hermits, isolated from the world of commerce and industry? But what is the alternative? If we engage with the world, living in the midst of civilization, we will be planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall. We will be doing maintenance work in the winters and summers, while our goal of studying Torah and growing spiritually will be altogether neglected. With our need to meet deadlines, secure that coveted promotion, remain productive and relevant, our life’s purpose will become winning the rat race rather than anything more sublime.
This is precisely the dispute brought in the Talmud (Brachot 35b) between two great sages, R’ Yishmael and R’ Shimon bar Yochai. The latter had spent over a decade hiding from Roman authorities in a cave. During those years he immersed himself in the study of Torah, and was sustained by meagre rations from a nearby tree and a stream of water, not too dissimilar to Israel’s existence in the wilderness. When he finally emerged, his spiritual stature was such that he could not understand why people would give up their precious time to prune their trees and harvest their crops. He had to learn to adjust to a world where the physical can be transformed into spiritual.
The task of a Jew is not to hide from civilization but to engage with it. We are to be economists, cashiers, gardeners, scientists and pastors. We are meant to live in the real world, and infuse our daily lives, full of mundane and material pursuits, with the values of our timeless Torah, transforming the physical into spiritual. This was the failure of the spies, in the view of Hassidic masters. Their choice was to remain secluded in the desert, eating out of God’s hand. They feared giving up their spiritual opportunities, they feared exchanging them for the plough and the hoe. But God’s will was for Israel to learn to be spiritual in the context of the real world.
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