05 Jun The Journey from the Sinai Desert to Israel
Under normal conditions the journey from the Sinai desert to the land Israel consumes all of 11 days! The original itinerary comprised a quick passage into Israel with an estimated arrival date of early summer. In quick succession the country would be cleared of paganism and barbarism, the Temple would be erected, Jewish Monarchy would be launched and utopia would arise. Mankind would be ushered into a period of universal welfare centered upon The Divine city of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, at the cusp of this ideal world we flinched, and human history has since been irrevocably altered. History has taken a 3000 year detour from which we are now just recovering. The national cowardice showcased in Parshat Shelach dramatically distorted the arch of Jewish and human history.
At some level the fear seems justified- the reconnaissance reports suggest a harsh land with gigantic residents who physically and psychologically intimidate all visitors. The spies-themselves Jewish leaders who had piloted masses of populations were now rendered into whimpering “midgets” who could only view themselves as miniscule grasshoppers. The mighty fortresses and well supplied armies conveyed an overwhelming sense of invincibility. Additionally, the land itself was surrounded by hostile enemies- including our dreaded nemesis Amalek which had entrenched on the southern boundary of Israel. The enormous fruits on display only confirmed their worst fears: this was a terrifying land with fearsome residents; average humans were obviously incapable of opposing these daunting forces and establishing a Jewish State.
On the surface, the desert-faring former slaves have every right to fear this threatening land and every reason to abscond from this mighty challenge. Sadly, their panic and fear blinded them to obvious: the exaggerated fruit, the harsh terrain, the outsized residents, the clustered enemies all reflect a larger “prophetic” reality. This land isn’t a “standard” country with typical challenges. It is God’s backyard and it is driven by supernatural conditions reflected in the size of the fruit and the nature of the residents. It would be naïve or even historically blind to expect this land to be easily acquired – If God’s presence is palpable in Israel it is only “logical” that every nation will vie forcefully for a toehold. It would be surprising if the land weren’t hotly contested and the borders were peaceful and uneventful. One of the nicknames for the land of Israel is “Afsei Aretz” or “the edges of the planet”. The Midrash elaborates that even though the land of Israel is geographically confined it is politically and historically expansive. Every ancient kingdom struggled to achieve a toehold in Israel. It was obvious that without this footing in God’s land no empire had claim to international prestige.
Settling the land of Israel demands a prophetic view of history. It’s latent challenges will inevitably be more demanding, precisely because the stakes of residing in this land are historical; without question the international community will be more unforgiving. This may deter some and may cause fear for others who seek and comfort, convenience and security. From a prophetic perspective however, these conditions are fully understandable. If anything, it would be surprising if conditions in Israel were “normal”. Normal historical patterns are atypical for the land which remains outside of the human calculus. The confidence to face these inhuman challenges must stem from the conviction that we are Divinely mandated for this terrain and that this mandate carries assurances of Divine assistance. God desires human effort and courage but He has clearly designated an preordained historical outcome. Failure to appreciate this perspective and inability to sense this conviction thwarts historical opportunities and sets History adrift.
The middle section of the parsha provides a very different narrative. Having failed to meet these Divine expectations the Jews are condemned to wander 40 years until a new generation can embrace the challenge which their parents shirked. Suddenly, a group of devotees insist that Divine Providence favors immediate entry- despite the fact that it appears to be an unwise military escapade. These “believers” are sternly warned against this expedition: The fierce enemies are still amassed at the border and, at this stage, G-d is no longer offering any guarantees. Their irresponsible adventure ends disastrously and their foolish dive into this misadventure ends in a massacre. These enthusiasts are just too confident and too cocky in assuming Divine backup for otherwise imbalanced and unpgragmatic strategies. It is clear that the Jews had squandered their opportunity for unqualified Divine assistance. However, prophetic opportunities are sometimes too dizzying and too intoxicating. Reason and responsibility are seen as “irrelevant” when looking through the lens of Historical opportunity with presumed assured Divine backup. The overconfidence of the Ma’apilim dooms their missions and invites calamity.
The two sagas which serve as bookends of our first attempt to enter the land provide a delicate balance and a nuanced challenge. Indeed, this land summons us and offers prophetic opportunity and historical inevitability. Mighty challenges which would be deterrents in typical conditions cannot hinder the historical certainty of our presence in the land of Israel. Though it appears that our return is governed by geopolitical forces and is subject to international decisions it is being driven by larger forces. This supernatural arch doesn’t acquit us from human struggle but should provide courage and determination to face otherwise insurmountable obstacles.
However, courage and vision cannot lead to misadventure or irresponsibility. Though we sense the supernatural condition of our return we haven’t yet achieved a state of demonstrable Divine presence providing clear and unmistakable instructions. Under these conditions we still must proceed with caution, pragmatism and, within reason, acknowledgement of larger geopolitical forces. To ignore these realities would not just be foolhardy at a strategic level. It would reflect an inappropriate overconfidence in our current national state and a disrespectful swagger regarding our current relationship with G-d. We operate under a general Divine mandate but we cannot guarantee Divine decisions. We are far removed from molding decisions based purely on prophetic assurances and expectations of supernatural interventions.
The tale of the Spies and the tragedy of the Ma’apilim offer differing perspectives upon life in Israel and balancing pragmatism with our Messianism. We can’t flinch in the face of this renewed historical opportunity simply because the deterrents seems so insurmountable. Our efforts must be driven by a sense of manifest destiny and historical inevitability. Alternatively, we still inhabit a complex world in which the Divine presence continues to be masked by historical factors and in which direct Divine information isn’t yet available. Our condition provides the supernatural potential which existed prior to the Spies failure. Yet our situation also reflects the condition after the fall of the Spies and the disaster of the Ma’apilim in which no Divine guarantees apply to specific decisions.