Mayanot Parshat Shlach: Soil Power
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Shlach(Numbers 13-15)

Soil Power

As we have explained in two previous essays on Shlach, one of the important aspects of the story of the spies is that it provides a teaching aid that helps us Jews to internalize the fact that it is our inescapable fate to live with hashgacha pratis, Divine Providence. It was a given way back then in the desert, and it remains true to the present day, that it is impossible for the Jewish people to live in peace in the land of Israel without the constant and obviously manifest intervention of Divine Providence. We have never possessed the capacity to attain quiet possession of this Holy Land by the laws of nature. Our historic reluctance to stake our future as a people on our ability to successfully conquer and inhabit the land of Israel, the theme of Parshat Shlach, was based on the perception of this truth.

 

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JEWISH HISTORICAL IMPERATIVES

Our Parsha forcefully conveys the message that the Jewish people were never presented with a historic alternative to following this course of linking our future with settling the land of Israel despite all the difficulties involved. The transition from wandering in the desert to settling in the land of Israel did not alter the spiritual quality of Jewish life; the settlement in our country is essentially an extension of the desert experience of living miraculously. In the desert, the miracles that supported our existence were clearly other-worldly phenomena - the manna, the Clouds of Glory, the well of Miriam etc. These same miracles were still necessary to ensure continued Jewish survival in the land of Israel; they were merely hidden under the surface reality of the physical world. This essay will attempt to explore the ramifications of this perception.

 

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SPYING OUT THE LAND FROM ABROAD

Providence placed the author, a resident of Israel for over a quarter of a century, abroad in the city in which he was raised, at the precise time when the schedule of the year mandated the composition of an essay on Parshat Shlach. In the world of CNN in which the author found himself, Israel is perceived as too dangerous a place to even visit for a few days, and to contemplate relocating one's family there is as remote as going to live on the moon. In such an environment, the author found himself challenged to explain/defend his decision to raise his family in the dangerous environment of the conflict-torn Middle East rather than in the relative safety of his home town.

We have to start at the beginning. Let us think back to how the hand of Providence guided the Jewish people back to Israel following the two thousand year hiatus of the exile. The beginning of the return was the Holocaust.

 

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IT ALL BEGINS WITH THE HOLOCAUST

It is true that the students of the Gaon of Vilna and the disciples of the Ba'al Shem Tov initiated the process of Jewish resettlement at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Nor is it possible to ignore the enormous contribution made by secular Zionists in the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth century toward the successful re-establishment of an independent Jewish state. But all these efforts would have failed without the great influx of refugees produced by the horrors of the Holocaust.

Not only would Israel have lost the War of Independence without the aid of these survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, who often went straight into battle upon landing on Israel's shores; the nations of the world would never have awarded instant recognition to the nascent Jewish state if they had not experienced the shock administered by the discovery of the incredible genocide that had been perpetrated against the Jews. It was the collective guilt felt by humanity, engendered by the recognition that the Holocaust was the evil child of millennia of virulent worldwide anti-Semitism that shamed them into recognizing the Jewish state.

 

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THE BREAK IN JEWISH HISTORY

This observation leads to a startling conclusion regarding post war Jewish history: there is no smooth historical continuum that leads from the two thousand year exile to the re-establishment of the Jewish state. In Jewish terms, this re-establishment represents the founding of a new world constructed on the ashes of a world that was entirely demolished by the Holocaust and its aftermath. The communities of Ashkenazi Jewry in Europe were physically erased by the Holocaust, and the Sephardic communities living in Arab lands, although not directly physically harmed for the most part, were brought to an abrupt end by the Arab hatred aroused by the establishment of an infidel Jewish state on soil they regarded as holy Moslem territory. The old Jewish world simply ceased to exist.

It is important to make two points at this juncture. While it is clear that the Holocaust represents the end of one world in Jewish terms and the establishment of the State of Israel the beginning of a new one, the author does not mean to imply that there is a teleological causal connection between the two events. The Holocaust was a tragedy of such immense proportions that only God can tell us the reason why He caused it to happen. We must await the revival of the prophetic relation with God that will accompany the speedy arrival of the Messiah to discover its true causes. While it is wrong to offer the need to re-establish an independent Jewish state in the land of Israel as the cause of the Holocaust, the correlation between the two events is inescapable.

It is also important to note that from a Torah perspective, every movement in Jewish history is inextricably linked to the survival and transmission of Torah.

 

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THE TORAH POINT OF VIEW

Halacha, Jewish law, does not recognize an obligation to reconquer the land of Israel in the present era. In fact, according to the Talmud, the Torah positively forbids such conquest:

Rabbi Zeira avoided Rabbi Yehuda because he intended to move to Israel from Babylon [modern Iraq]. Rabbi Yehuda taught: whoever moves from Babylon to Israel is in violation of a positive commandment: "they will be brought to Babylonia and they will be there till the day that I remember them - the word of God - when I shall bring them up and return them to this place" (Jeremiah 27,22).

Rabbi Zeira however maintained that this injunction applies to the vessels of the Temple and not to individual Jews. Rabbi Yehuda responded with a second verse: I adjure you, O nations destined to ascend to Jerusalem, for if you violate your oath, you will become as defenseless as gazelles or hinds of the field, if you dare to provoke or to awaken God's love for me until He desires it. (Shir Hashirim 2,7)

But Rabbi Zeira maintained that this oath also does not apply to individuals but is an injunction against attempting to reconquer Israel by military force until God clearly gives the signal that it is time. (Ketubot 111a)

Nachmanides in his commentary on the Book of the Mitzvot by Maimonides maintains that the commandment to conquer the land of Israel applies even in our day [see Mitzva #4 of the positive commandments omitted by Maimonides] in spite of this passage of Talmud, but the consensus Halacha position backs Maimonides - this commandment does not apply to us as per the passage of Talmud quoted above.

To sum up the Halacha position, there is a mitzvah to reside in Israel at all times; but conquest of Israel by force is forbidden until God specifically commands us to end the exile. As such, any attempt at conquest is an unjustified provocation of the nations. As long as they are not sanctioned by God, such acts of provocation are not only forbidden per se, but are also fraught with danger and therefore doubly forbidden on the grounds that one is not allowed to place oneself in a dangerous situation voluntarily as well.

 

* * *

 

ONLY THE HOLOCAUST COULD BRING US BACK

In light of the Halacha, there was no way to bring Jews who observe Torah back to Israel in mass numbers by ordinary means. It took the Holocaust to drive us back; we had no place else to go. The United States could only absorb a certain number. It seemed unthinkable to return to the countries of Europe where our former neighbors actively assisted in the execution of the Nazis' nefarious atrocities; Israel was the only viable alternative for large numbers of observant Jews. From a Torah perspective, the Holocaust appears to constitute an act of Divine Providence aimed at re-establishing the centrality of settling in the land of Israel in a new Jewish world. [As stated earlier, this should not be understood in terms of a teleological cause.]

The pre war giants of Orthodox Jewry, the Chafetz Chaim and Rabbi Chaim Ozer foresaw that Israel would be one of the final destinations where Torah would halt on the road to Mashiach. They devoted much thought and effort into laying the groundwork for the relocation of Torah in Israel by sending major torah luminaries such as the Chazon Ish to Israel's shores well before the outbreak of the second World War.

 

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THE TRANSMISSION OF TORAH

We need to reach clarity concerning another important issue. From a Torah perspective, it is the world that needs Torah not vice versa. The existence of Torah is independent of the historical process. The survival of Torah in no way depends on which particular patch of earth the Jewish people occupies. Nevertheless, the policies of Divine Providence can be deciphered by studying the arrangements it has dictated to ensure the survival of Torah at any particular time.

If we look at Jewish reality as it is presently constituted, we cannot escape the conclusion that Divine Providence has decided to link the survival of Torah with the existence of a Jewish state in the land of Israel. The re-establishment of the Jewish state was one step in this process.

The second step is related to the transmission of Torah. Prior to the Six Day War, the United States was as important a center of Torah education and transmission as Israel. From a Torah perspective, perhaps the major effect of this miraculous victory was that it opened the floodgates to a massive inflow of observant post high school students who came to Israel to continue their post-graduate Torah studies. Today, over sixty percent of all observant Diaspora Jews send their children to Israel for an intensive immersion in Torah for a period of years between high school and the beginning of their adult lives in their home communities.

Providence has actualized the reality foretold by Isaiah:

"It will happen in the end of days: the mountain of the Temple of God will be firmly established as the head of the mountains, and it will be exalted above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it. Many peoples will go and say, 'Come let us go up to the mountain of God ... and He will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths.' For from Zion will the Torah come forth, and the word of God from Jerusalem." (Isaiah 2:2-3)

The re-establishment of Zion as the source of Torah was accompanied by another remarkable new phenomenon, the worldwide Teshuva movement. The Six Day War also brought a massive influx of young secular Jews to Israel engaged in individual voyages of self-exploration. After two hundred years of unrelenting flow away from the traditions of Judaism, the spiritual vector of the Jewish people finally reversed its direction. Many of these young secular Jews rediscovered their Jewish roots inspired by the wellsprings of Torah at its very source in Zion, Israel's sacred soil, and returned to observance. Today, their dynamic spiritual power is clearly visible all over the world as they establish vibrant Jewish learning centers wherever Jews are located and share their own inspiration with their assimilating Jewish brethren. They are the embodiment of the Torah flowing out of Zion referred to by Isaiah.

Not only has the hand of Divine Providence turned the land of Israel into the major transmission center of Torah, the very existence of the Jewish state serves as the major bulwark against world Jewish assimilation. Every Jew is affected by the words of Torah flowing from Zion.

Divine Providence has relearned the lesson of Parshat Shlach with us. It has reconnected the survival of the Jewish people with the habitation of the land of Israel. For the first time since the destruction of the Second Temple, the land of Israel is the center of the actual Jewish world.

 

* * *

 

SPIRITUAL POLICY CHANGE

This act of Providence signals a profound spiritual policy change.

During the two thousand year Diaspora, the survival of Torah and the Jewish people was linked to the negative spiritual force of anti-Semitism. Jewish assimilation was not an option almost until the 20th century. Jews were simply not allowed in by the nations. Forced into their own self-contained enclaves, Jews maintained their connection with their history and their Torah observance as a matter of course. When they were allowed out of the ghettoes in significant numbers towards the middle of the 19th century, the unremitting march towards assimilation began.

Jews abandoned their Judaism in mass numbers wherever the forces of anti-Semitism were relaxed. Three million Jews immigrated to the United States between 1800 and 1945. The vast majority of these Jews came from observant homes in Europe and other parts of the world. Yet, when the Holocaust survivors arrived in America they found only two or three small centers of post-graduate Torah learning in the entire United States. Strictly observant Jews formed a tiny part of the Jewish establishment and they certainly had the weakest voice in the broad Jewish community.

The situation in Europe was little better. In modern countries such as Germany, France and England, the level of Torah knowledge/observance was shockingly low and the assimilation/conversion rate extremely high. In the absence of the virulent force of anti-Semitism, the traditional Jewish world tended to fall apart. But this was the old Jewish world that ended with the Holocaust.

 

* * *

 

THE NEW WORLD

The hallmark of the new Jewish world is positivism. In most of the areas of the world where Jews currently reside, anti-Semitism has been forced to adopt the relatively mild face of social discrimination. If the practice of traditional Torah Judaism is rapidly growing nonetheless, this demonstrates the enormous positive power of Torah at work. The voice of the Torah that emerges from Zion is once again able to penetrate the Jewish heart. There is no longer any need for the negative force from without. The positive force from within has been restored.

From a Torah point of view we live in exciting times of new hope and spiritual rebirth. The first positive out of which all the other positives grew was the re-establishment of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. Divine Providence is rebuilding Torah through the vehicle of the reinstatement of the flow of Torah from Zion and Jerusalem.

 

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ALIGNING ONE'S LIFE WITH PROVIDENCE

Torah is guaranteed to survive no matter what happens. But whoever aligns his or her life with the workings of Divine Providence, becomes its conscious tool. There is little doubt that a vibrant, revitalized Jewish people residing in the Land of Israel is the vehicle that Divine Providence has chosen to transport us towards the Messiah. It is difficult to imagine that one can lose out spiritually by choosing to locate one's family at the focus of Torah, just as it is difficult to believe that there is any spiritual profit to be realized by living abroad.

But what about the danger? If we assume that Providence is attempting to re-establish us in Israel, the ultimate danger is abroad. Suppose that Jews stopped coming to Israel permanently because of security issues. Unless the Divine policy regarding the centrality of Israel were to change, the logical consequence of such a reaction on the part of the Jewish people would be to provoke Providence to demonstrate that no matter how unsafe living in Israel may be, there is less safety to be found in living abroad.

The author lays no claim to prophecy or even to wisdom. So far the Halachic authorities have all encouraged parents to keep sending their children to Israel despite the security situation. This remarkable demonstration of Mesirat Nefesh, or self-sacrifice is a tremendous source of merit and a clear rectification of the sin of the spies described in our parsha. One trembles at the prospect of a reversal in this trend. To close the circle of Jewish history we must rectify the first major sin, the sin of the spies, by voluntarily choosing Israel before the Messiah can finally appear.

Published: June 4, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) Avi Keslinger, June 12, 2014 8:23 AM

Conquering Eretz Yisrael

According to Ramban (sefer HaMitzvot, mitzvot that Rambam "forgot") there is a Tora obligation to conquer Eretz Yisrael in every geenration.

(5) Avi Keslinger, June 13, 2011 4:43 PM

Three Oaths

Moreover, the three oaths are not mentioned in any of the halachic codes. The Ohr Sameach says that even if they had some force at one time the San Remo conference repealed them. In addition, of of the oaths is that the Nations should not persecute us "too much". This has certainly been violated many times: the Crusades, the Chmielnitzki massacres, the Holocaust. In any case, the establishment of the State and the Six-Day War are clear signs that Hashem has decided that it is time.

(4) Avi Keslinger, June 13, 2011 4:37 PM

Conquering Eretz Yisrael is a Mitzva in our Time

Many poskim (Rav Shaul Yisraeli, Rav Kook, Rav Tzvi Yehuda, Rav Avraham Shapira, etc.) hold that there is a mitzva to conquer Eretz Yisrael in our time. This is even so according to Rambam. He does not count it as a separate mitzva as it is part of other mitzvot.

(3) Donald, August 13, 2007 10:57 PM

I am in complete awe with the Wisdom that HaShem has given you, in your elucidation of this Torah portion, and its applicability to our present time. I have always heard so many conflicting opinions regarding aliyah, and yet, after reading your article, it [aliyah] seems so logical. All I can say is thank-you so very much!

With the help of HaShem; and my best effort, I hope that I will become an oleh in the not too distant future.

(2) Ben Levy, June 23, 2005 12:00 AM

We must fight assimilation even now!

It is true there has been a great improvement, in teshuva. However intermarriage in USA is over 50 %. The number of potential jews who would have been Jewish, if it was not for this killer of intermarriage, is 23 million. That is there would of been 23 million jews in the USA, if we kept solid, and united. Every jew is responsible for another jew, you can not be religious and not make a serious attempt to make your secular freind religious. You are responsible for him and therefore will bear the harsh consequences, on the day of death, or ''transition''. Fight assimilation with all your heart brothers and sisters. Shabbat shalom

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