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Vision and Reality | Parashat Shelach Lecha

Vision and Reality | Parashat Shelach Lecha

Eran Baruch

Parashat “Shelach Lecha”, or as it is commonly known, “The Parasha of the Scouts” tells a well-known story. Moses chooses twelve leaders of the tribes and sends them to scout out the land of Israel. They find that the land is good “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large.” (Numbers 13:27-28) That is to say, ten out of the spies warn the people against moving to Israel because the people that reside there are strong and therefore the People of Israel can expect to lose in war with them. God punishes the spies who defame Israel – and condemns the People of Israel to wander 40 years in the desert and not enter the Promised Land until the entire adult generation of former slaves dies in the desert – while praising  Yehoshua (Joshua) Ben Nun and Caleb Ben Jephunneh, who unlike their companions, thought it was possible to fulfill the dream and ascend to the Land of Israel.

The story that is less known from this week’s Parasha is the story of the “ma’apilim” (the “defiant immigrants”). After the tale of the scouts and after God punishes the sinful spies and nation, a group of people breaks out and say to Moses – we are not afraid, let’s go and move to Israel. Moses warns them, saying that this is not the right time, but they are brave, do not listen to him, and go. And the difficult result:

“A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey”, illustration from Henry Davenport Northrop’s 1894 “Treasures of the Bible”

“Yet they defiantly marched [va’ya’apilu, same root as ma’apilim] and ascended toward the crest of the hill country, though neither the Lord’s Ark of the Covenant nor Moses stirred from the camp. And the Amalekites and the Canaanites who dwelt in that hill country came down and dealt them a shattering blow at Hormah.” (Numbers 14:44-45)

These “ma’apilim” are beaten and die. We do not remember them. This raises a number of questions. It seems that the scouts had been right – the people residing in the Land of Israel at that time were indeed strong. Was it not the scouts duty to scout and tell the truth. In what way did they sin?

And what is the difference between the “ma’apilim” of our Parasha  and the modern “ma’apilim” – Jewish refugees from the Holocaust who, in the 1940’s, defied restrictive British legislation and “illegally” immigrated or sought to immigrate by boat to the Land of Israel, and who took upon themselves the name of the biblical “ma’apilim”?   

In Chaim Nachman Bialik’s poem “The Dead of the Desert” he makes an interesting connection:

All of a sudden a heroic generation will shake themselves off, a generation of war heroes

And their eyes will sparkle and their faces will shine –

And their hands are swords!

[…]

They cry:

“We are heroes!

The last generation of slavery and the first of redemption are we!

Our hand alone, our mighty hand

Cast the yoke from off our necks.”

Bialik connects between the biblical ma’apilim who failed and the Zionist ambitions and Aliyah to Israel in the early days of modern Zionism. He raises difficult questions regarding the tension between vision and reality, between tough truth and the will or the ability to deal with it.

We live today in a world which is not always clear: what is merely an imagined truth crafted by an elaborate and well-designed campaign, and what is the real truth that we must deal with. Parashat Shelach Lecha exposes this tension. It makes us understand the importance of the real harsh truth as opposed to sweet imagination, and how challenging it can be to recognize reality and try to deal with it even if we occasionally fail.

To the top of the mountain! To the top of the mountain!

Who will block the way to the ransomed captives?

They are already past the mountain,

The land of the gazelle is hinting to us

Defiantly ascend and ascend, Climb up, climb up [ha’apilu, ha’apilu – same root as ma’apilim]

To the top of the mountain ascend!

(Levin Kipnis)

Eran Baruch is the Executive Director of BINA

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