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