Mayanot Parshat Shlach: How to Digest Miracles
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Shlach(Numbers 13-15)

How to Digest Miracles

The story of the spies dominates this week's Torah portion. The major Torah commentators take a fairly uniform approach towards the underlying dynamics of the story and we shall begin by presenting this approach.

The anxiety of the spies, a virus that ultimately infected the entire Jewish people was triggered by the conclusion that it was impossible for the Jewish people to either capture or to hold on to the land of Israel without the aid of miraculous intercession. Neither the spies nor the Jewish people ever doubted for a minute that God was perfectly ready willing and able to supply the miraculous support required to achieve the conquest, but this confidence did not allay their anxiety.

After experiencing the life of the desert, 40 years of total dependence on God's miraculous support, the Jewish people were looking forward to resuming 'normal' life once again. They wanted to live in circumstances where they had some capacity to fend for themselves and retained some measure of control over their own lives.

Their exploratory mission persuaded the spies that such a resumption of normal life was not about to happen anytime soon, if at all. The people of Israel did not have the military strength to conquer the land or even to defend a conquest that was miraculously achieved; they foresaw that following the conquest they would be repeatedly attacked by the resentful peoples who surrounded the Land of Israel on all sides, a process that continues to the present day. In effect then, their situation of total dependence on God's miraculous intercession would continue indefinitely into the future. It was the prospect of continuing this total dependence on miracles that they rejected.

This is the traditional approach of the commentators to the saga of the spies and it presents some problems of its own. Doesn't every true believer live with the knowledge that his life is governed by hashgacha pratis, Divine Providence, in any case? In a way everything that happens to the Jewish people can be characterized as miraculous; we believe that the events of our lives do not occur by 'chance' but are deliberately arranged by God. Why would it matter that the events of the conquest and the settlement would have to be miraculous, as long as God promised to deliver?

 

* * *

 

LIVING MIRACULOUSLY

The explanation: living with miracles means living under the harsh scrutiny of the Attribute of Justice. It is the pressure of living with the Attribute of Justice that the Jewish people rejected, not the miracles that God proposed to deliver.

Let us present a metaphor to bring the problem of living with miracles down to earth. Imagine a super athlete who signs a multimillion-dollar contract and promptly enters a long slump. Such occurrences are not unusual in the course of athletic careers; when a slump hits an athlete who is earning a normal salary, the fans generally don't take much notice; athletes simply wait it out and the problematic period of the slump generally passes within a reasonable period and no harm done.

Because of the publicity and controversy that inevitably accompanies the awarding of unusually huge contracts, the slump of the super star is not regarded in the same tolerant light. His huge salary focuses an unusual degree of attention on his performance and he is held to a higher standard. In his case, there is almost zero tolerance of any sign of weakness or deficiency. Fans start calling for his blood almost immediately.

The person who subsists on miracles is in a very similar situation. If the Jewish people ever experienced a spiritual slump while living an existence that could only be miraculously sustained, they would be immediately be subjected to the focus of God's Attribute of Justice. They could never be allowed the slightest spiritual slump. And that is a very frightening prospect; everyone has spiritual ups and downs in the normal course of life; none of us can remain at our spiritual peak for extended periods of time.

This seems like a reasonable explanation, and yet, the report of the spies and its aftermath is presented as such a terrible sin, that it doomed all its participants to perish in the desert and pushed off the entry into Israel by an entire generation. It cost the Jewish people an extra 40 years of wandering in the desert, and its after effects reverberate through Jewish history down to the present day. All the major tragedies of Jewish history began on the 9th of Av, the anniversary of the presentation of their report, the infamous "night of tears". Why wasn't their objection to living with miracles accepted as legitimate?

 

* * *

 

ATTRIBUTE OF JUSTICE

We need some background on the Midat Hadin, God's attribute of justice, to answer the question.

"In the beginning Elohim created the heavens and the earth." (Genesis 1:1)

God refers to Himself as Elohim throughout the first chapter of Genesis, the chapter that describes the seven days of Creation. Elohim is the Divine Name that Jewish tradition associates with the attribute of justice. Rashi quotes a Midrash that explains the selection of this particular identity in the context of creation:

God initially intended to create the world with the attribute of justice and referred to Himself as the Creator with the name Elohim to convey the information to man that he was to live in a Universe founded on Justice. However, God foresaw that a world created solely with the attribute of justice could not endure, and He therefore added the attribute of mercy in Genesis II and made it a partner of the attribute of Justice.

This certainly calls for an explanation. Why was God interested in creating the world with the attribute of justice in the first place? Even more, how does this square with the idea that creation was an act of pure benevolence, as it is written, "....the universe will be founded on Your benevolence..." {Psalms 89:3)?

Jewish tradition teaches that there is no contradiction. The greatest acts of benevolence are the ones that enable their beneficiaries to become independent of the need for benevolence; they arm the recipient with the ability to stand proudly on his or her own two feet. God - Whose beneficial aim in creating the universe was to endow man with the ultimate good, i.e. oneness with Himself – could only accomplish His design by exercising the attribute of justice.

Only a person who achieves his attachment to God through his own efforts can enjoy the resultant spiritual exaltation to the full. Only such a person can retain a sense of independence even in the context of cleaving to the Divine Presence. Only such a person can take pride in the achievement and retain his or her self-respect. Without this sense of self-respect man continues to exist eternally as God's dependent.

Jewish tradition offers a simple metaphor to explain this idea. A benevolent wealthy individual has a poor relative that he wants to help out. He could accomplish this by continually handing him money as the need arises. A much more effective way is to set the relative up in his own business so that he can become independent and able to support himself. The benevolence of his wealthy relative is the foundation of the survival of the poor relation in either case, but the second method leaves him with his pride and sense of self worth intact.

 

* * *

 

AS IT WAS MEANT TO BE

If we think once again about the words of Rashi regarding the use of the name Elohim in Genesis I, we should now be able to uncover a profound idea hidden beneath the surface of his words to light.

On the surface, Rashi is saying the following: God wanted to create the universe in a certain way, but realized that creation wouldn't work if He created it the way He would have liked so He decided to settle for second best. He would have preferred a creation based exclusively on the attribute of justice but was forced to settle for a creation where the attribute of mercy was a full partner.

But this cannot possibly be accurate. What could possibly prevent an Omnipotent God from creating a universe that conforms to His exact wishes? If God wanted a world that functioned according to tattributes of pure justice, He was presumably capable of creating a world that could do exactly that!

This question points to a conclusion that illuminates much of Jewish history and explains a great deal about the Jewish character. God did indeed create the world He wanted! Coupling the attribute of mercy with the attribute of justice is not an abandonment of God's original plan at all. The combination of the attributes should not be understood as an abandonment of God's original design. We must still face up to the attribute of justice; the attribute of mercy was added to make it possible for us to survive its harsh scrutiny, not to allow us to escape it.

 

* * *

 

THE NEED TO SURVIVE

The attribute of mercy accomplishes this task by placing us in an existential situation that compels us to live with miracles. Exercising his attribute of mercy God signs us to the type of stupendous contract that effectively prevents us from ever allowing ourselves to slip into a prolonged spiritual slump.

The Jewish people are given the land of Israel to inhabit, a land they can neither conquer nor retain by the rules under which the rest of the natural world operates. They require constant miraculous intercession to survive. Therefore, it becomes a matter of dire necessity for them to maintain a sufficiently high degree of spiritual tension to guarantee that they can merit the miracles they must have even if they are subjected to the intense scrutiny of the attribute of justice. There is no motivator that matches the power or the intensity of the instinct for survival. This drive is the perfect vehicle to spur man towards spiritual perfection; no conceivable force could possibly match the thrust of the instinct for survival towards spiritual achievement.

Nor did the loss of the land of Israel or its re-conquest a half century ago alter this basic dynamic of Jewish existence. Whether in our homeland or in exile the evil force of anti-Semitism can always be depended upon. Jewish survival is always a miraculous phenomenon.

How did the members of the Great Assembly (the founders of the Second Temple) merit the appellation "great"? Because they restored the glory of God's crown. Moses came and referred to God as the great, the mighty and the awesome God (Deut. 10:17). Jeremiah came along (when non-Jews were holding pagan celebrations in the First Temple) and declared, "Strangers are crowing in His palace, where then is His awesomeness?" He omitted the reference to God as being awesome from the first blessing in the Amidah. Daniel came along and said, "Strangers hold His children in bondage, where then is His might?" He stopped referring to God as mighty. The members of the great assembly said, "On the contrary, just the opposite! His might is apparent in His self-restraint, in that He restrains His rage, and as for His awesomeness, how else could His people survive among the nations?" (Talmud, Yuma 69b).

In all stages of their history Jews require miracles to survive. Throughout their entire history as a people they have been compelled to live under the scrutiny of the Midat Hadin. Living with the attribute of justice for so long has produced some remarkable side effects.

 

* * *

 

JEWISH CHARACTER

For example, one of the most dominant characteristics of the Jewish stereotype is the tendency to look at everything that goes wrong as being your own fault. Jewish writers have often decried this tendency to apologize to your enemies for persecuting you as bordering on self-hatred. The correct way to diagnose this tendency towards extreme self-criticism is not to perceive it as a racial character flaw but to recognize it as the natural consequence of living under the scrutiny of the Midat Hadin throughout history.

Jews have always needed miracles to survive and the Midat Hadin has all too often abjured "They don't deserve it!" When perfection of character is a necessity of survival one rapidly learns to examine one's actions with the greatest scrutiny. Eventually this attitude becomes so ingrained, that it remains a cultural artifact among all Jews even those who have long abandoned the active practice of Judaism. Leaving your religion behind is one thing; leaving yourself behind is impossible.

As we stated in our essay at the beginning of the Book of Numbers, the purpose of this book is to draw up the dynamics of a Jewish society; to outline the basic aspects of the Jewish character and to present the dominant social forces that would shape Jewish history down the ages.

For the last 50 years, we Jews have lived in a world that generally recognizes us as equal citizens with full civil rights, deserving the same protections that are owed to any other human being. We possess our own state, a powerful army, and live by the mantra of "Never Again."

Many amongst us believe that we no longer require miracles to survive. We can afford to relax our constant spiritual vigilance; we no longer need to pursue spiritual perfection for the sake of survival. We can enjoy the pleasures and benefits of the world with the rest of mankind. We no longer need a Torah, the handbook that teaches man how to exist in a state of constant spiritual tension and drives him relentlessly towards perfection. Enjoying the respite from our blood drenched past, large numbers of our people have abandoned either all of the Torah, or at least very significant parts. We are reliving the story of the spies with a vengeance.

Is this realistic? Can our history take such a sharp turn? Is it reasonable to suppose that at this late stage in the Jewish saga after so many thousands of years, God has really settled for second best and no longer desires a world that can stand up to the scrutiny of the Midat Hadin? Isn't it far more reasonable to regard this period as a respite from the Holocaust, a well-deserved rest after having suffered the harshest infliction of the Midat Hadin throughout even our own incomparably bloody history?

 

* * *

 

THE SIN OF THE SPIES REINACTED

Are we so different from our forefathers in the desert? No. The modern day repetition of their ancient mistake is the true significance of the story of the spies.

Way back in the desert some 3,000 years ago the same social dynamics that drive us were also at work. The Jewish people, worn out by their long bondage in Egypt wanted to relax and live in its own domain as other nations do, free of the Midat Hadin. They wanted to live ordinary lives free of miracles, inflicted with only mankind's ordinary problems. The message of this story is that this is not our fate. God told the Jewish people that the generation of the spies would continue to live with the Midat Hadin in the desert, and their children would enter Israel and live with it there. There is no escaping the Midat Hadin for a Jew.

But why not? Why should our willingness to accept God's Torah - surely a wonderful thing in itself that reflects only to our national credit - subject us to such a harsh fate? The answer is to be found in the attribute of mercy.

As we have already stated, the purpose of creation is for man to earn his own reward according to the rigorous standards set by the attribute of justice. The first demand issued by the attribute of justice is the following: the process of earning your reward cannot begin until man demands it of his own initiative. The attribute of justice not only demands that man actually earns his reward; it also demands that man acquire the opportunity of earning his reward through his own efforts. Only man could make the initial move toward God - God was unable to initiate the God-man relationship.

 

* * *

 

THE COVENANT OF ABRAHAM

The person who made this happen was Abraham. It was Abraham who entered into a covenant with God, it was he that agreed to live with Midat Hadin of his own free choice.

That is precisely the reason why God's attribute of mercy kicked in at this point. For when man finally found his own way to the true purpose of existence, he deserved to retain this hard won gain even according to the harsh standards set by the Midat Hadin. This is why we refer to God in our prayers as the "Shield of Abraham" – our characterization of God in the very first blessing of the Amidah, the most important of our prayers.

God shields Abraham's hard won spiritual gains from being eroded. That is why this first blessing is devoted to Jewish survival and redemption. The genius of the Jewish people recognizes that the secret of spiritual survival is tied up with the special mercy of being forced to live with the Midat Hadin.

But this is not only true for the children of Abraham. Judaism is wide open to all the peoples of mankind. Whoever elects to participate in the dynamics of living with the Midat Hadin, becomes a follower of the Torah, is entitled to the same protection. The attribute of mercy immediately embraces every convert and ensures that he or she will never slip from this level of living with the Midat Hadin by introducing the same dynamic - the need to live with miracles - into his or her life.

"You are children to YHVH your God - you shall not cut yourself and you shall not make a bald spot between your eyes for a dead person. For you are a holy people to YHVH your God and YHVH has chosen you for Himself to be a treasured people, from among all the peoples on the face of the earth." (Deut. 14:1-2)

Nachaminides comments on the passage:

In my opinion, you are a holy people is a guarantee of the survival of souls before God. That is to say, since you are a holy people treasured by God, He will not give up on any soul and will work out ways to ensure that no soul is permanently pushed away and lost. Thus, it is improper to cut yourself or tear out your hair in mourning even on someone who dies young. Such actions symbolize a sense of permanent loss. The Torah does not forbid tears, because human nature is stimulated to tears whenever beloved people part even if they both continue living...

The attribute of mercy guarantees the recovery of even those who appear totally lost to the Jewish people through death or assimilation. While the downside of Jewish history compels us to live constantly with the Midas Hadin, there is an upside as well. In return for agreeing to live with the Midas Hadin the Attribute of Mercy remains at our side and guarantees that none of us will be permanently lost or separated from the rest. We may not be able to see how the spiritual recovery can possibly take place but we have God's guarantee, backed up by His attribute of mercy joined in this case by His attribute of justice.

 

Published: June 18, 2003

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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) Leiby Burnham, June 22, 2006 12:00 AM

minor but significant mistake in this Dvar Torah

In explaining the mistake of the meraglim you write that after living for 40 years in the desert with all their needs being met by mracles they wanted to resume normal life. the problem is the decree of them being in the desert was only made after the sin of the meraglim. until then they had only been in the desert for about a year.
Have a Good Shabbos

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