In an article recently written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, he described how powerfully moved he was when he encountered a teaching given by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The teaching offered by Rabbi Schneerson focused on the story of the twelve spies found in this week’s parsha.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
“Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of the ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them.”
A few verses later the story continues;
At the end of forty days they returned from scouting the land. They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community, this is what they told him: “ We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, the cities are fortified and large. We cannot attack those people for they are stronger than us.
The major commentators all focus on the spies’ fear of the inhabitants. They focus on the Israelite’s lack of belief in themselves. Generations of slavery in Egypt had rendered them totally incapable of embracing the challenge of settling the land promised to them by God.
Rabbi Schneerson, building on earlier Hassidic commentators, argued that the spies were not at all afraid of the Canaanite inhabitants. In fact the Torah tells us earlier that the opposite was the case. From the perspective of the major Hassidic masters the spies were actually afraid of success! Their only mistake was that they wanted to remain close to God. During their years in the desert the Israelites received manna (an edible substance provided by God as the Israelites travelled through the desert); they were protected by the presence of the Shechinah (the in-dwelling imminent presence of God ) and the feeling of kedusha (closeness to God) was palpable at all times. God, however, never intended to keep the Israelites dependent on Her forever. Spiritual maturity requires an itoruta de la tata, an effort from all of us here in this imperfect and broken world. Only in this way can God truly be manifested in our world. The mistake of the spies was their inability to realise this. At some point the umbilical chord keeping them dependent on God for all their needs had to be severed.
There is a core principle in Hassidic thought which revolves around the idea that God needs a dwelling place – a dira be tahton – here in our world. We are not meant to spend our lives separated from others in the pursuit of holiness. Ultimately closeness to God requires us to be in active relationship with all of God’s creation.
There is a story in the Talmud that further elucidates this point. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai was a famous rabbi and freedom fighter during the time of intense Roman oppression. It is said that he along with his son hid in a cave for twelve years learning Torah and surviving off a carob tree and fresh water that God had provided for them. When the persecution ended they left the cave and immediately encountered farmers toiling the land. Bar Yohai and his son could not believe that the farmer was not studying Torah. Years in the cave had blinded them to the fact that people could not live on study alone but had to work hard toil the land and earn a living. To punish the farmer, they burned the field with their gaze and all the produce was destroyed. A bat kol (heavenly voice) arose saying, “ Have you come out of the cave and into the world in order to destroy it? Is this what the years of Torah study have taught you? Return back to the cave!” It required another twelve months in the cave for Bar Yohai and his son to learn that the purpose of Torah study is to embody its teachings and apply it in the world.
To enter the land and ‘conquer’ it is a metaphor for the work we need to do to overcome all that inhibits us from realising our full potential in our lives. That is how we build a dira betahton dwelling place for the divine here in this world.
Rabbi Cantor George Mordecai.