JUST as the opening chapters of Genesis are not meant to be a science book (though Genesis does contain scientific data), the middle chapters of Numbers are not meant to be a history book (though they contain historical information). The Torah intends to teach its readers the meaning of things more than the things themselves.
Even so, what could be the meaning for us of the failed mission of the 12 spies? This took place more than 3,000 years ago. Spies were sent to scout out the land of Canaan in preparation for its conquest. Isn’t the story of the spies’ fright over the land’s residents just ancient history?
And if the story really is intended to be applied forward, doesn’t that limit it in the extreme? How often in the last 2,000 years have Jews had the opportunity to spy out the land of Israel for the purpose of conquering or settling it? Isn’t it far-fetched to say that the Torah records a story whose meaning is lost on countless generations, just because every couple of thousand years a Zionist alternative might give it meaning?
Well then, what is the story for? Rabbi Yirmiya Katz takes it as a metaphor. Rabbi Katz, a world expert in mikveh construction, has turned his literary efforts to non-halachic matters. He has published three volumes of commentary on the Torah.
Here is his take on this week’s Torah portion.
THE 12 spies were sent on a mission. The take-away for readers of the Torah throughout the ages is that the soul of every person is sent by G-d from a higher world to accomplish a specific mission in this world. One may succeed, one may fail. This week’s Torah portion contains signposts of both success and failure; that is, instructions and warnings: acts and attitudes to embrace and to avoid if we wish to be successful in our life’s mission.
In a general sense, the risks a person faces are captured in a parable set down by the chasidic master, the Apter Rov, known as the Ohev Yisrael, “the Jew who loved all other Jews.”
In this parable, a destitute Jew sets out to improve his lot. Since there is nothing to be gained in his immediate surroundings, he undertakes a long journey, finally alighting on a place where diamonds and other precious stones are numerous beyond belief. They literally roll in the streets. This pauper is overjoyed and scrapes up pocketfuls and bagfuls of stones, ecstatic at his change in fortune.
He needs something to eat, so he goes to the local village store and pays with a diamond or two. The storekeeper laughs at him. “What you’re handing me is worthless. They’re so common that people use them for mere buttons.” Shocked, our poor simpleton asks, “Well, what is the currency here?” He’s told that it’s paper, specifically green and black sheets of paper — very rare in these parts.
So he sets out to make a living and amass his own fortune in paper. And he does. Time passes. Finally it’s time to return home to his family and share his fortune. He confidently stuffs his suitcases with his green and black sheets, and sends notice ahead to prepare a regal homecoming for him. He’s had great success.
He arrives home, triumphantly strutting his paper wares. His family weeps. How paltry has been his success! Then, someone spies his buttons — diamonds and rubies — and rejoices. He’s brought home a little wealth after all. Whereupon he weeps, remembering suddenly how ample these precious stones were, and how few of them he took with him.
The moral of this simple parable:
As the traveler lived in two places, so do we: this world and the next world. As each town in which the traveler lived had its own currency, so does this world and the next world. As the traveler wrongly valued each currency in two places, so do we.
The currency that works in this world is glory, goods, desire and conquest or oneupmanship — coming out on top — but when we bring this currency to the next world, the world of eternity, of reuniting with G-d, we are laughed at. The currency valued there is that which is not often valued in this world: acts of kindness, ritual observances, prayer — coming close to G-d and enhancing His creations.
THE point of the parable — and of the mission of the spies taken metaphorically — is to focus on our own mission, to gather up the truly precious items in this world for the next one: the good deeds prescribed in the Torah. The next world is forever. The temptations of this world are fleeting vanities and spiritual dangers. Look past them. Grasp the truth. Do not waste your best years pursuing scraps of paper. Do not end up weeping.
Easier said than done.
In a general sense, this week’s Torah portion records the words of Moses to the spies before they set out on their journey: “Strengthen yourselves . . . ” (13:20).
For, indeed, the challenges of life often seem insurmountable. The spies fail in their mission. They are deflated and defeated by “the cities which are very greatly fortified” and by the people who are “giants” (13:28). The metaphor is clear. Even if one is victorious in the struggle for meaning, the challenges just keep coming back. Whatever clothing, dwellings and fame one might achieve, they are never enough; this world’s recurring diminishment of the soul never stops.
As if the external challenges were not enough, “we were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes!” (13:33). The spies worried more about what others thought of them than about what G-d expected of them. Their mission was derailed. They succumbed to false humility, seeing themselves as no greater than grasshoppers rather than as agents entrusted with a Divine mission.
Such alternative goals as taking pride in holiness, taking joy in mitzvot, standing tall in the ways of G-d — being humble before G-d, not before the deniers of G-d — eluded them.
“STRENGTHEN yourselves and take from the fruit of the land” (13:20).
The fruit of the land: It begins with a seed. The seed then decomposes. Nothing is seen for a long time. And the seed must constantly be watered and the land attended to.
“Strengthen yourselves”: A person may seem like nothing more than a seed, a grasshopper, a nothing, in his own eyes; yet, this is how the fruit of the land begins.
A person may fail in advancing his Divinely mandated mission; yet, the seed also decomposes, so despair is unwarranted.
A person may see no improvement in his spiritual quest, none at all; yet, the seed remains underground with nothing to show for itself, for the longest time.
A person must always work at fulfilling his mission, for the seed requires constant attention before any fruit is seen.
Strengthen yourselves by taking these lessons from the fruit of the land.
Even after the spies failed completely, Caleb did not give up on them. “But do not rebel against the L-rd. You should not fear the people of the Land . . . Their protection has departed from them; the L-rd is with us. Do not fear them” (14:9). Even after we fail, the L-rd does not give up on us. A person must believe that he is able to fulfill every commandment of the L-rd.
“Every person must see that he is an entire world, and must see to it that he does not destroy his world.”
The human being is sent to this world because in the future there will be revealed the glory of His Sovereignty, as it is written in Isaiah, “On that day G-d will be one and His name one,” and nothing will exist separate from the revelation of His sovereignty. It is this for which the Jewish people prepares, and it is the preparation of the Jewish people that facilitates this.
But if the dimensions of our success are immense, so too the dimensions of failure. When the spies failed on their 40-day mission, they suffered 40 years of wandering in the desert of Sinai. An entire year of wandering for a single day of failure. Still again, in reverse: Nothing is as precious to G-d as an agent of His who fulfills his mission, putting his entire self into it. When every person does this, the Messiah arrives.
Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News