Shelach Lecha: Back to beginnings

Shelach Lecha: Back to beginnings

Parashat Shelach Lecha begins with Moses sending 12 spies to travel the length and the breadth of the Land of Israel, and report their findings. It is worth noting that unlike the tribal leaders who were called to assist Moses with the census that began the Book of Numbers, the men chosen for this particular mission were men who had earned their high status by their own achievements. For 40 days they gathered the information as requested and then prepared their report. All agreed that it was a good land, flowing with milk and honey. Yet 10 of the spies reported that the inhabitants of the land were too strong for the Israelites to conquer. Their words led to fear and dissension among the people, who rebelled against Moses, and the rest is history. They were punished with 40 years of wandering in the desert. None of that generation would enter the land of Israel.

One of the spies, Caleb, had a different opinion: “We should go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it” (Numbers 13:30). What gave Caleb the courage to go against the others?

According to the great Biblical commentator Rashi it was a unique personal experience that gave him the strength to do so. According to the Torah all the spies traversed the land from south to north (13:22). Yet while doing so, the verse says that “they spied the land starting in the south, and he went to Hebron.” The verse switches from “they went” to “he went” within the course of one sentence, which seems to make no grammatical sense. Rashi says that the “he” refers to Caleb, who seems to have broken off from the group for a while and gone to Hebron.

Why would he do that? Because of the importance of Hebron in Jewish history. By making this detour, to pray at the cave of Machpela, the burial places of the patriarchs and matriarchs, Caleb drew inspiration from those first Jews in the land of Israel who also experienced hardship and potential danger from those who inhabited the land, yet persevered and made a home there. That is why, at least according to Rashi, Caleb did not fall prey to the self-doubt and insecurity demonstrated by the others. He alone, along with Joshua, was allowed to enter the land of Israel.

With the failure of the recent peace talks, the formation of a Palestinian unity government, as well the troublesome decision of the Obama administration to “cooperate” with it, Israel’s friends and supporters throughout the world are especially concerned. Even the president’s closest allies in the Jewish community cannot possibly deny the pressure the decision to work with the new Palestinian unity government has put on Israel, or deny the possibility of a showdown over this issue in the future. Our opinions and responses to these and similar challenges always touch upon issues of politics, security, international law, and the like. But Rashi’s comment on this section of the Torah is sharing a different type of lesson and truth with us. Rashi is stating our historic claim to this land, and our interest in its welfare. Rashi is not making a political statement; he is making a religious statement. He is not asking whether or not one may trade land for peace, or weighing in on the merits of the settlement movement. What he is saying is something far different, reminding us that Hebron was our ancestors’ first real estate holding in the land of Israel recognized by others, purchased in such a way so as to deny others the right to contest our claims there. Countless generations of Jews have not only dreamed of but also drawn hope and religious inspiration from this very place. Caleb too used this inspiration to strengthen his resolve in the face of great adversity. And it made all the difference.

On this Shabbat all who care for the security of the state of Israel, whether we are right, center, or left in our Zionist leanings, whether we are Republican or Democrat, need to make our own metaphoric journey to Hebron, and consider the sacrifices and heroism of previous generations. Like Caleb before us, may we too find the inspiration there to remain strong in our beliefs in the face of adversity and difficulty. And may we emerge from the experience more ready to work for a safer and more secure future for world Jewry, for the state of Israel, and for all humanity.