Shlach: Partnership with God

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 1 month ago

      The first section of our parashah this week is an episode about which we will read again in Devarim, with a few key differences; most of these differences we may BE”H discuss when we get to parashat Devarim, including whose initiative it is to send the spies in the first place. In the version we read this week, it is God’s.

      The initiative should raise eyebrows for a number of reasons, not the least of which is: if God is behind us and guaranteeing our victory and we are aware of this, then why should we be sending spies? Different commentaries have tried to answer this question in various ways, among them that we need to do our hishtadlus, or that this is a trip to “try on” the land like a garment rather than develop any strategy, or that this is designed as a test of the people. And this last option is particularly interesting, because God does not perform tests for the same reason that we do—He does not need to perform a test to get information.

      The narrative usually goes that we fail the test and that it makes God very angry (whatever the idea of God getting angry means), and that our punishment is that we cannot enter the Land of Israel in that generation. But that would imply that God needs to perform a test to see if we are ready, and His anger would imply an unexpected result—and results unexpected to God might raise some eyebrows too. The idea of results unexpected to God can take us in some very interesting directions; those who do not go in those directions often say that God never gives us tests that we cannot pass. Is this week’s parashah a violation of that rule?

      To answer the question, it may be worthwhile to look at a few details of the story having to do with Yehoshua, whose name change by Moshe is mentioned at the beginning of the narrative. It appears that Moshe senses some danger with regard to Yehoshua in particular, and makes a preemptive move to counter it. And when the spies deliver their account, it is Kalev who initially answers—Yehoshua is initially silent. And yet eventually, it is Yehoshua, not Kalev, who leads the people in the conquest of the land.

      Yehoshua is Moshe’s “top student.” As we discussed last week, study requires humility; it also produces humility, teaching one to see the merits of both sides of an argument. When the spies deliver their account, Yehoshua cannot help but be aware that there is truth to what they are saying. His humility makes him weaker in the face of the spies, even as his learning makes him the appropriate heir to Moshe.

      We could argue that what is, in fact, happening is that the generation of the desert is, in a sense, the “generation of humility.” We have been discussing them in posts as a slave generation, and we typically think of humility as positive and of slavery as negative, never discussing the close relationship—though they are certainly not synonymous!—between the two. This generation is well fit for study, and not well fit for life; they belong in the desert—or in yeshiva, or in academia—and that is where they must remain. But, based on our discussions of the book of Vayikra, it would be tamei to simply order them to stay in the desert; it must be the consequence of their own free actions. And hence the spies.

      The generation of the desert goes from being slaves in Egypt to being slaves of God. And Moshe, who takes them out, is the ultimate slave of God, a clear window, as we discussed last week, and referred to directly as עבד ה. Rav S.R. Hirsch describes being slaves of God as true freedom; but Rav A.Y. Kook, when discussing that generation’s statement of that aspect of themselves in the words נעשה ונשמע, contends that it is hardly the ideal. As we discussed last week, the second set of tablets, unlike the first, survives its descent to our world because it is a collaboration between man and God, and that is the ideal: not to be God’s slaves, but to be God’s partners. Partners of God may argue with Him—as Avraham does when he hears about the verdict regarding Sodom; partners have respect, and they also have their own views and opinions.

      This, of course, does not mean that the ideal is to disobey the Torah. But the fact that the previous sentence needs to be written already underscores a slave mentality. The entire question of whether to obey or disobey is the question of a slave—or, equivalently, that of a child. Adulthood and partnership are beyond obedience and disobedience. For a young child, it makes sense to talk about whether he is obeying or disobeying his parents; for an adult child, such a question is much less meaningful or appropriate. Unlike in a parent-child relationship, in a healthy marriage, it is totally inappropriate to ask whether or not one spouse is obedient or disobedient with respect to the other. We can observe the beginning of this progress, from tum’ah to tahara, from slavery to freedom, from servitude to partnership, in the fact that in the Torah, our relationship with God is explicitly discussed as one between master and servant, whereas in the Navi, it is more often discussed as one between a husband and wife[1].

      In a generation not ready for partnership, there may be a Kalev with the chutzpah to speak out against the masses, in the face of calls to stone him, and Yehoshua, the humble student, eventually lends his voice to the same cause. In our time, this is reflected in the pioneering project of political zionism, originally opposed by the masses of Jews and by the vast majority of rabbis; over the course of the last century, we have seen religious Jews turn to support zionism, though many liberal Jews abroad continue to oppose it, and many liberal Jews in Israel do too, in the form of supporting Arab causes over Jewish ones. The most vehement zionists and the current Israeli government tend to be non-religious, but it is the more humble religious Jews who will be the appropriate ones to lead the return of Jews to Israel to its fulfillment—analogously to how David, with great respect but against the violent protestations of Saul, takes over the leadership of Israel.

      The entire concept of tefillah, according to Rav Hirsch, is self-reflection, with God as a partner who talks one through the process. The siddur was compiled later than the Torah and Navi, and was at one time revolutionary in terms of the high level it expected of the Jewish people—the idea that everyone, not only neviim, can daven was completely new. But in our day, this revolution occurred millennia ago, and we, looking at the siddur, may find it to be heavily tilted toward a very asymmetric relationship between ourselves and God[2].

      It may then be especially inspiring to look at Lecha Dodi, a particularly late addition to the siddur, written by Rav Shlomo haLevi Alkabetz a millennium and a half after most of the siddur was compiled. “דודי.” writes Rav Hirsch, “is none other than God Himself.” This song is written for people ready to think of their relationship with God as a true partnership, and it is no coincidence that it too talks about God rejoicing over us like a groom over a bride; after all, the partnership of a healthy marriage is a model for our relationship to God.

      [1] Of course, as we see in this very discussion of this very parashah, the discussion of the tablets, etc., the Torah very strongly points at partnership as well; it is just not so explicit.
      [2] Similarly to how it is in the Torah, the siddur contains all of the concepts we are discussing; but at the time, the average reader and davener would not have been able to appreciate these concepts, and so they are implicit and require some “digging”; they are not mentioned explicitly.

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