Parshat Shelach Bringing the desert into everyday life


This week’s portion, Shelach, contains one of the most challenging stories in the entire Torah: the story of the spies.

“Sh’lach Lecha’ Anashim Ve’Yaturu …” “Send out spies for yourselves…”

(Numbers 13:1)

An incredible moment in Jewish history; the Jewish people are ready to achieve their mission. With the fleshpots and pyramids of Egypt behind them, the Jewish people, on the banks of the Jordan River, are now ready to come home. More than two hundred years after the children of Joseph and his brothers became enslaved in Egypt, the centuries old dream of the Jewish people is finally about to be realized. G-d has told them they are now ready to enter the land. In fact, the same verse containing the mission the people are being given to spy out the land, contains as well the promise that G-d will give it to them.

So one wonders, if G-d is already promising to give them the land, why is there any need at all to send out spies? Perhaps this is where things begin to go off course: If the Jewish people truly believed in G-d, they would certainly have no need of spies.

However, this still does not arrive at the root of the problem, as the principle of sending scouts ahead to spy out territory prior to conquest is not necessarily a bad thing.

In fact, Moshe himself, before conquering Ya’azer, sends out spies (Bamidbar 21:3), and so does Yehoshua (Joshua), (see Joshua 21:32), relying heavily on the information his two spies bring back before beginning the conquest of the land.

All of which leaves us with a number of puzzling questions:

The real question, it would seem, is how the same people who actually witnessed the ten plagues, and the splitting of the sea could doubt G-d’s ability to bring them into the land of Israel?

This is especially challenging considering who the spies really were: they were the princes of the tribes, men of great stature, chosen as the leaders of the people, “Roshei B’nei Yisrael Hemah”: “They were the great men of Israel” (Numbers 13:3).

It is difficult to imagine, therefore, how such men could suddenly, in the midst of an experience where G-d was everywhere, and where miracles were a daily event, doubt G-d?

Obviously, there is something else at the root of this painful episode.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, suggests a fascinating possibility.

You see, the question was not why the people and for that matter the princes, did not believe in G-d, the question was whether they believed in G-d too much.

The people understood that part of the process of entering the land of Israel, was that G-d would necessarily withdraw. In the desert, G-d was everywhere, providing manna from heaven, and even protection from the elements by way of the clouds of glory. And that is clearly not the goal in Judaism; because when G-d is everywhere then where are we? Much like parents, who need to get out of the way so their children can grow, entering the land of Israel represented that period in the growth of the Jewish people where they would come into their own.

G-d did not create us in order to do everything for us; He wants us to be partners with Him in perfecting an imperfect world.

The problem was, how do you leave the world where G-d is everywhere, to the world where He is so hidden? The spies weren’t afraid of a physical defeat, they were afraid of a spiritual defeat. What happens to a people accustomed to meditating on G-d twenty-four hours a day when they have to actually serve in the army, work in the fields, and earn a living? It is no big deal to have a deep spiritual relationship with G-d in the Yeshiva that was the desert; but can you maintain that level in the office, or on the tractor?

Indeed, this is one of the issues in modern Israeli society which threatens to rip apart the social fabric of the country. There are many in the ‘religious’ camp (whatever that means…) who believe that those capable of sitting and learning Torah should not go into the army.

After all, for two thousand years of exile we did not have a land, it was only our connection to our Jewish heritage and the study of our Torah which allowed us to maintain our identity and survive as a people. And make no mistake about it, I watched a lot of guys go into the army with a kippah on their heads and a pair of tefillin in their bags and gradually lose their connection to Jewish ritual and Jewish tradition. Hard as it is for some to imagine, it is very easy to lose your Jewish identity in the ‘field,’ even in the only Jewish army in the world….

When you have to get up an hour early on so little sleep, when you are the only one on Shabbat not watching television and hanging with all the guys in the base’s TV room, when you are up in Lebanon, and the only one who won’t eat the fresh roasted lamb brought to you by the local Sheikh, or when, in officer’s course, all the guys spend Saturday afternoon preparing for the grueling Sunday morning exams, and you can only begin studying when Shabbat and the Saturday night run are over at 11 PM; believe me, it wears you down.

So I understand the position of those Jews who are opposed to yeshiva students doing the army.

This week’s story, however, is the Torah’s response to this position. You can only disagree with someone when you first understand and even respect where they are coming from. So, having considered that point of view, I would respectfully disagree.

This was, you see, precisely the mistake of the spies in the desert three thousand years ago. “How can we leave the perfect spiritual environment of the desert for life in the trenches and the fields? How will we be able to maintain our level of Torah when we need to harvest the crops, and man the guard posts?”

“We are not ready,” the princes of the tribes must have felt; little more than a year out of Egyptian servitude, the Jews are still complaining and doubting G-d; they need more time in Yeshiva, as it were.

But the spies were wrong, because the purpose of a life lived in Torah is not elevation of the soul; that is only a vehicle to sanctify the world. The real goal is to find G-d in the world, not to see Him by leaving the world behind.

The miracles of the desert were simply the preparation for entering the world. Instead of being lowered to where the real world drags us down, Judaism believes we can serve to raise the entire world to where we all should be.

The perspective of the yeshiva student afraid to enter the challenges of the army, itself a mitzvah, in defense of the Jewish people, limits G-d to the domain of the spiritual environment. But Judaism suggests that Hashem is everywhere, and we can find G-d and a relationship with Him, even in the most physical of experiences.

One wonders (though it is certainly not for us to judge…), whether this was the tragic mistake of the leaders of our generation, indeed the princes of Torah and great leaders of the Yeshiva world sixty years ago, who almost en masse, resisted the opportunity to leave the spiritual desert (even paradise) of the Yeshivot in Europe, for fear of the spiritual corruption life in the barren desert of the land of Israel would have entailed.

Imagine what a different Jewish world we would live in today, if the State of Israel had been built by the yeshiva students of the Mir and Belz, Volozhin and Radin….

And make no mistake about it; this is not a question for the yeshiva student alone; every Jew knows the seclusion of the desert, along with the challenge of “conquering the land,” and the spiritual tension that exists between them.

We begin our day with a brief retreat into the spiritual desert; a chance to pray and/or take some time to study Torah, before the pressures of daily living engulf us.

Early in the morning, when the kids are still asleep and the phone is quiet, one has a little time to re-experience the desert; to explore once again a closer relationship with life and living, and the source of it all…

But then we emerge into the “land” with all the stirrings of doubt that, of necessity, come with the world of business, labor, and even the practical mitzvoth of building a better world.

Our challenge is to see Hashem everywhere, and to bring that desert with us into the land every day, and everywhere we go….

Shabbat Shalom

Rav Binny Freedman, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City is a Company Commander in the IDF reserves, and lives in Efrat with his wife Doreet and their four children. His  weekly Internet ‘Parsha Bytes’ can be found at