31 Jul Israel & The Parsha Eikev – The Beasts of the Jungle
The Book of Devarim provides Moshe with one last opportunity to issue moral guidance, as well as warn his flock of the unique challenges emergent upon entering the land of Israel. In particular, in this week’s Parhsa – Eikev- every moral message is prefaced with a prediction about entering Israel and the trials following in its wake. In the beginning of the parsha, while forecasting the inevitable conquest of the land, Moshe empowers the people by reminding them of the past miracles in Egypt. Surely, these previous supernatural triumphs should provide confidence for the upcoming battles, with otherwise formidable and fearsome local armies. Not only will Egyptian miracles be repeated, but an extraordinary “new” weapon will assist in this conquest- a terrifying wasp dispatched by God to eliminate any remaining resistance!
Yet, despite the miraculous nature of the victory, Moshe warns that the pace will unexpectedly drag. He warns that the entirety of Israel won’t be immediately occupied as this would invite the threat of wild animals. Too quick a conquest would expose the frontier and its pioneers to attacks by wild beasts. By capturing the land in stages, the frontier can be tamed and the boundary between civilization and jungle durably established. This concern seems bizarre in light of the overwhelming miracles and wonders witnessed in Egypt and promised in Kena’an. In fact, in Egypt, God had demonstrated complete control over the animal kingdom by dispatching “arov” beasts to rampage through Egypt while barring their encroach into the Jewish sections of Goshen. Shouldn’t God similarly control the jungles of Kena’an and offer a rapid entry into, and conquest of, Israel? If God can unleash monster wasps he can certainly obstruct wild animals. If God can curb the multiple perils of the desert, He should certainly tame the beasts of His promised land.
Evidently, despite the supernatural quality of entering Israel, God desires that it be acquired through human convention and be subjected to a human experience. Subduing ferocious beasts in a windswept desert certainly dazzles our imagination, inspires wonder and emphasizes Divine authority. However, actual residence in Israel must be more durable and stable and this can only develop if human beings acquire the land through human effort and persistence and are thereby able to sense “ownership” of the process. The struggle to carve out the frontier and fortress cities against the untamed forces of the jungle or desert is a seminal element of any national identity. Without this formative experience, the land will feel “supernaturally delivered” and more of a tenuous fantasy than an enduring kingdom. Without a sense of personal and national accomplishment, our commitment to the land –especially during potential periods of crisis – would be fragile and fleeting. The sluggish pace- reflective of a human struggle for settlement – allows a deeper level of achievement and ultimately a more profound sense of identification with our land.
Evidently, the pace of settling the land of Israel is metered to human capacity and human timeframes. Given the seemingly indomitable odds facing our entering Israel, our success is obviously based upon Divine intervention. Yet, evidently, God Himself prefers that we navigate a human process and experience timelines which ultimately are thwarted by a wide variety of limitations – the proverbial “beasts of the field”. Nor surprisingly, we have encountered a similar sluggish “pace” in our modern attempts to return to Israel. Though the process feels supremely Divine, the pace sometimes feels maddeningly human. We haven’t secured universal international recognition nor have we succeeded in inspiring the entire Jewish world to return. As religious Jews, we sometimes despair at the secular spirit which suffuses much of this process. Yet despite the frustrating nature of the struggle, it does allow us to assert the “human element” in this historical partnership with God. Asserting our own role at a “human rate” and wrestling with various forms of ‘beasts of the field” bonds us to our land and enhances our level of identification. As “empowered partners” we identify more deeply than we might have as passive beneficiaries of meteoric Divine revolution.
Secondly, the staggered process doesn’t only allow a human pace and a level of human identification- it also better enables our “acclimation” to this revolution of history. The Torah assigns the slowed pace to the threat of wild beats unleashed on frontier settlements who are insufficiently protected. Additionally though, the pace allowed the young nation to “process” the historical import of life in Israel as well as the Divine demands incumbent upon them. These weighty expectations aren’t immediately or easily comprehended and a gradual entry enables a more deliberate process of internalization and comprehension. It isn’t merely the “darkness of the jungle” which dictates a slower pace but also the “cloudy inner uncertainty” of a nation beckoned to glory but requiring time to fully grasp their great mission.
The staggered pace of our current return has also allowed our generation to process the meaning and the connotations of this great historical miracle. If that original generation required time to ponder the implications of entering Israel we require a period to contemplate both our return as well as the tumultuous historical road upon we traveled home. There are so many questions which require consideration and closure. Why did this prolonged Exile last 1900 years? Why were Jews so persecuted and discriminated against? How did we survive without the classic cultural elements of flag, land, coin and army- components which typically create national fusion? How does our success over the past two millennia impact our relationship with God and in particular the tonality of our Tefillah? How can we expand the fabric of religious experience into the spheres of nationhood without diluting the inner core of ritual and Torah study? Other questions don’t yield simple answers but certainly demand reflection: Without creating moral or historical parity between the Holocaust and the State of Israel, how do we explain the implausible juxtaposition of these two events in less than three years?
We have so many issues to process and so many questions to face. Returning home isn’t merely geographical or political – it is existential on both an individual and collective level. Without clarifying some of these questions, our bodies may inhabit the land but our imaginations and souls are still restless. Perhaps, we too, have been afforded an opportunity to acclimate to these great events and deliberately process them within the framework of 3000 years of history. We have many “beasts of the field” to tame- both those who seek to contest our presence as well as the inner beasts of the “historical jungle” who pose important questions demanding our consideration. We still yearn for a lightning-fast overhaul of history and rapid return to our lost glory and lost Mikdash. Without question, the power of such an experience and the level of Divine revelation will turn hearts, settle our souls and resolve any lingering questions. Until that moment, we value the time to distill our experience and achieve clarity and contentment.