Friday, May 31, 2013

A Thought on the Parsha

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The story of the spies returning with their evil report is well-known.  What is less well-known is an understanding of why they were punished.  What did they do wrong?  All  they did was report accurately on what they saw.

Ramban suggests an answer.  The key, he says, was the use of the word efes, however: "However, the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great" (Bamidbar 13:28).  Efes, says Ramban, actually means "nothing" (at a later time it came to mean "zero"):  "Their wickedness was in their use of the word efes, which indicates that the matter is completely impossible." (Ramban on verse 27).  For him, to say that it was impossible demoralized the people and demonstrated, and perhaps propagated, a lack of faith in God.

I would like to suggest that the key is a different word, not one that they used, but one that they failed to use.  The word is tova, "good". And this was a word that Moshe had introduced.

Before sending out the spies, Moshe had instructed them to search out the land, in particular to assess the military strength of the inhabitants, and the best tactics for invading and conquering the land. True, God had promised to give them the land, but it was their responsibility to wage the war as strategically and intelligently as possible.

All this is well and good.  But then comes a troubling phrase in Moshe's instructions: "And what of the land that they dwell in, is it good or bad?" (13:19).  This is not a question of description and facts, but calls for an evaluative assessment, and one that seems to be unrelated to questions of military strategy. Is this land that God has promised us good or not? That is quite an astounding question, given that God had explicitly told Moshe earlier that God would bring them to "a good land, one flowing in milk and honey" (Shemot 3:8). As a result, a number of commentators explain that this was really also a question of a military assessment, and not meant as one of overall judgment. Be that as it may, the question - good or bad - had been put out there.

And how was it answered?  It was not.  When the spies came back, they accurately reported that the land was flowing with milk and honey (13:27), but they failed to say that it was "good." They refused to give it their approval and to affirm God's promise. This was the crux of Calev and Yehoshua's response, " And they spoke unto all the company of the children of Israel, saying, 'The land, which we passed through to search it, is good, exceedingly so'" (14:7).  The spies saw their mission to evaluate whether the endeavor was worth it. Was the land good?  Was it worth it?  Were there prospects good?  Should they undertake the endeavor or not?  In contrast, Calev and Yehoshua came in committed to the goodness of the land and the rightness of the enterprise.  The land is good and God will help us to conquer it.  That was a given.  Their mission - as they properly understood it - was only to determine how to make this enterprise succeed. 

If one is not a priori committed to an enterprise, if one does not believe that the land is good, then every problem looms large, every challenge becomes an obstacle. However, if there is a fundamental belief in God's promise and in the goodness of the land, then whatever the problems and whatever the challenges, they can be met and dealt with - "We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it!" (13:30). This is a lesson for all our endeavors, and indeed for all our relationships.  The Gemara (Berakhot 8a; Yevamot 63b) tells us that when a man got married in Israel, they would ask him "matza or motzei" - "found or find?" Is it matza, as the verse states, "matza isha matza tov" -" a man who has found a woman, has found goodness," (Mishlei 18:24) or motzei, as the verse states, "u'motzei ani mar mimavet et ha'isha"  "I find more bitter than death, the woman" (Kohelet 7:26).  On the face of it, this was a roundabout and clever way of asking the man if his wife was a good match for him or not (bracketing the harsh nature of the second verse).  But there is another way to understand this.  It is not a question about her, but about him. Is he a matza or a motzei, is he 'one who has found', or 'one who is always finding'? Is he the type of a person that once he finds something, he has found it, he recognizes what he has found as a metziah and he is happy about it? Or is he amotzei, one who even after he  has something is still in the process of finding and of looking, of assessing if the thing that he has is good enough, what are its problems, and if there is perhaps something better waiting to be found?

If this man is a motzei, then he will never be happy, there will always be some imperfection, something that needs to be better, and a constant dissatisfaction with the present and a desire to find the next thing - no matter how good his wife or his lot is, he will be bitter. If, however, he is a matza, then he will recognize the gift of what he has, that God has given him a metziah, as a find, and whatever problems arise, they will be addressed and taken care of, but will not impinge on the basic happiness and recognition of the goodness of what he has - matzah isha matzah tov. Had the spies recognized, as Calev and Yehoshua did, that the land was a gift from God, that the land was good - had they been fundamentally committed to the enterprise - then the challenges would not have become obstacles. If we are able to embrace this attribute of matza, to see the blessings in our lives, to see the Land of Israel and the State of Israel, to see our spouses, our children, our parents, and our friends, as metziot, and gifts from God, to see them as tova, as good, then whatever bumps we encounter and problems we face, we will be able to address these problems and deal with them. They will not loom large, they will not undermine us, for we will know that it is good, and it will be good. "We shall surely ascend, for surely we can do it!"

Shabbat Shalom!

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