When the Dust Settled

Last week’s portion ends with a ferocious battle; this week’s begins with the after action report and the distributing of medals. We learn the names of those killed
and those rewarded and then all the troops are mustered and counted, to see who remains alive from the fighting.

The counting tells us something else, as well. We are told that aside from Caleb and Joshua, no man remains alive of the generation of the desert, the generation that had rebelled against God and Moses some 40 years earlier.

The generation that knew Egyptian slavery, that had experienced redemption, that stood and witnessed at Mount Sinai, but who cavorted with Molten Calf anyway, was now dead. The generation that had been brought to the very borders of Canaan but refused to enter died in the wilderness.

Only one more of that generation was set to die: Moshe himself, and Moshe knew it. In Numbers 27:12, God tells Moshe that he is to ascend to the top of Mount Abarim and see the land that he will not enter, and that when he sees the land from that place, he will be gathered to his ancestors. We don’t know for sure what Moshe thought as he contemplated gazing at the land and then dying.

We don’t know what he thought about those ancestors to whom he would be gathered.

It is almost certain that as he prepared for his death, he gazed at the array of Israelites camped around him. Shaping their spirits around the call of Torah so that they would begin the transmission of that shaping of lives and spirits to subsequent generations — eventually down to us and the generations that follow us — had been his life’s work.

If his life’s work was to have any meaning, it had to be passed down to another. The Torah does not tell us what Moshe thought, but we are told what he said. As he thought about his death, Moshe asks God to appoint his successor.

God tells Moshe to take Joshua, “a man in whom there is spirit,” to ordain him with his own hand in the presence of the entire assembly. And then God utters a strange phrase: “And you shall take from your hod and place it upon him, so that the witnessing community of Israel shall hear and hearken” (Numbers 27:20).

This is the only occurrence of the word hod, normally translated as “majesty” or “splendor” in the entire Torah. Commentators on the Torah give us a range of thoughts on this word. One very terse but telling comment is given by the Ba’al Ha-Turim (Jacob ben Asher, 1270-1343, author of the Arba’a Turim – one of greatest legal minds after the Talmud).

The Ba’al HaTurim writes, “Me-hod’kha – b’gematria — ha-sod. Lomar lakh she-masar lo sod ha-merkavah u-ma’aseh breisheet.”

Free, explanatory translation: From your “Hod” (the term “your hod” in the gematria where each Hebrew letter has a numerical value — M.F.) adds up to 75, as does the Hebrew term “ha-sod.” Ha-sod means “the secret” — this means that Moshe taught to Joshua the secrets of Jewish mysticism — the mysteries of the realm of the Divine Throne and the mysteries of the Creation of the World.”

n this short space, we won’t go into the mysteries of the Divine Throne or Creation, but we say this: Those who do study that material feel that they have entered into the realm of ultimate reality. They find there the ultimate root and reason, ground and cause of all that happens — the truths that are the foundations of the world of righteousness.

Those wno descend into this world come to know how these truths are manifested in this world, and they even come understand the wars that have to be fought in this world for the realm of truth to hold firm.

Perhaps the Ba’al Ha-Turim was saying that as Moshe contemplated his own death, he asked himself: What can I say to my successor? Every true leader who leads not for the sake of power but rather for the sake of a vision knows of the world of truth in which that vision is rooted. Moshe had to pass on to Joshua not just the Torah itself, and not just the mantle of leadership, but some deep knowledge of what truly was at stake — the sense of Divine urgency for lives shaped around the truth of Torah.

And Moshe’s deepest prayer is that we should all blessed with a measure of Divine spirit — knowledge of the holy, and the will to bring that holiness into all parts of our lives. Torah is passed down through the generations not for sake of heritage – that would be a shallow tautology “we pass it down so that it may be passed down.” We pass it down because Torah links us to the Divine mysteries — of the self, the soul and the truths by which we ought to shape our lives.

Goggles of Faith

I first saw night-vision goggles when I watched Harrison Ford in Tom Clancy’s “Patriot Games.”

The bad guys were prowling in a dark bedroom. Suddenly, a good guy switched on the room lights, practically blinding them.

The technology was featured again in “The Silence of the Lambs,” and then came the War in Iraq, showing us green-tinted footage unfolding amid the dark of night. All thanks to those night-vision goggles.

In this week’s Torah Portion, Shelach Lecha, Moshe Rabbeinu designates an advance party of 12 scouts to survey the Promised Land. The Jews are approaching their destination and the fulfillment of their destiny, and Moshe opts to have a team of prominent Jewish leaders, comprised of one delegate from each of the 12 tribes, investigate and report back.

Moshe asks the team to develop answers to several basic military questions. Is the enemy fortified, or is he so brazen in his self-assuredness that he lives in open camps? Is the enemy strong or weak? Few or numerous? He also asks them to report on the quality of the land, its fertility, its vegetation.

After 40 days of spying, the scouts return with their report, a frightful account of mighty giants in the land. Yes, the land is beautiful, flowing with milk and honey, resplendent with grapes so huge that they may become a registered national trademark one day. But the bad news is that we are not going to conquer it. The opposition is overwhelming — there are Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Emorites and Canaanites all over the place. Some are teeming along the Mediterranean coast on the west; others line the eastern border at the Jordan. Just impossible. The land eats its inhabitants. And then there are those giants: “In our own self-estimation, [as compared to their size and awesomeness,] we were like mere grasshoppers. And we were equally tiny and minuscule in their estimation, too.”

The nation hears the report. Many weep with hopelessness and despair, wishing only to return to the security of Egyptian slavery. Chaos ensues. Two spies emerge — Caleb of the tribe of Judah, and Joshua of Ephraim — and desperately try to overcome the mood.

“It is a beautiful land, flowing with milk and honey,” they assure. So what if there are five nations encamped all over the place? God has promised us the land, and He certainly will give it to us. If these other nations try to stop us, we will have no problem defeating them — “They are our bread.”

In the starkly diverging views of the majority report and the minority, we see the role played by insight, understanding and faith in the God of our ancestors. One can infer why 10 prominent Jewish leaders were so despondent. They looked at objective facts on the ground. They counted. They measured. They were responsible. They were practical. And they figured it’s impossible. The whole world is against us. No way.

Caleb and Joshua reported differently because they donned the night-vision goggles of faith. Embedded among the scouts, Caleb and Joshua somehow peered through the muddled night of faithlessness, and they saw clear as day: the Lord is our God. Those who defy His plan for us are our bread.

Caleb and Joshua saw so clearly through the horizon’s murkiness. They did not see themselves as grasshoppers, and they, therefore, did not imagine that others saw them as puny either. Rather, they saw bread that, like any bread, easily could be made into crumbs. They saw that the God who had smitten Egypt with 10 plagues; who had targeted and pinpoint-excised first-born males among families and houses replete with females and later-born kids; who had split the Sea of Reeds and revealed Himself before the eyes and ears of the nation of several million at Sinai — could deliver. They saw it so clearly. There is no doubt in their voices. “If Hashem, our God, wants to do so, He will bring us into this land and give to us this land flowing with milk and honey. So don’t rebel against God, and don’t fear the local denizens, because they are our bread, and their protective cloaks already have departed. God is with us. Don’t fear them.”

There is such strong, overpowering fear from one quarter; such equal certainty of success from another.

Their story is ours. Some look at the Torah and see nice children’s Bible stories. But they are not nice stories, and are not primarily for children. The Torah recounts passionate dramas that recur throughout our nation’s march to ultimate redemption. The practical, objective Jewish leaders see Amalekites and Hittites on the border, barbarians at the gates, and freeze with fear. They back away from our destiny.

And those who don the night-vision goggles view the challenges with perspicacity and understand that Jewish leadership is about vision and destiny.

Crumbs of bread. Kernels of rice. We are protected by the Guardian of Abraham.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, rabbi of Young Israel of Calabasas since its inception, will become rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine in August. He also is an adjunct professor of law and a member of the Rabbinical Council of California.


On the Outside, Looking In

A bush that is on fire but doesn’t burn is indeed a mysterious phenomenon. But arguably, there is a far more mysterious element in the story of God’s commanding Moshe to go down to Egypt to the palace of Pharaoh. And that mysterious element is the very selection of Moshe. On the face of it, Moshe would seem to be the least well suited person in the world to take on the epic challenge of confronting Pharaoh and liberating the Israelite slaves.

I don’t say this because of Moshe’s self-professed weakness in the area of public speaking. The rest of the Torah is a powerful testament to his ability to speak eloquently, passionately and powerfully. Moshe’s claim that “I am not a man of words,” was an expression of his legendary humility, not a reflection of the objective reality. I rather refer to the vast distance that existed between Moshe and the people whose liberator he would be — a distance that began with happenstance, but persisted by design.

Moshe, of course, was the only Jew in the world who did not grow up among his brethren. As soon as he was weaned, he was returned to the care of the daughter of Pharaoh who had drawn him up from the river. And when, years later, Moshe left the royal compound to see the state of his biological kin, the Jews did not perceive him as being one of their own. This was pointedly displayed when Moshe chided one of the Jewish slaves to not strike his own brother. The slave’s response exuded suspicion and fear of Moshe: “Are you threatening to kill me as you killed the Egyptian taskmaster?”

Moshe was an outsider looking in. The distance between himself and the people whom he called “brothers” appeared unbridgeable. The fact that he never experienced the suffering and degradation that was their daily routine, only made the gap more severe.

The argument can strongly be made that in the aftermath of the above incident, Moshe made a conscious decision to separate himself from these people. The words that Moshe spoke in his heart, “behold, the thing is known,” are taken by the Midrash to reflect Moshe’s sudden understanding as to why the Children of Israel, of all the nations, are deserving of such a terrible, unjust lot. Their seeming lack of regard for each other, and their suspicion of any one who would want to help alleviate their plight leave a very sour taste in Moshe’s mouth. Reinforcing this argument are Moshe’s subsequent decisions to become a son-in-law, employee and permanent fixture in the home of Yitro, the priest of Midian.

Moshe had initially fled there to escape prosecution for the killing of the Egyptian taskmaster, but he quickly decided to set down roots. Decades and decades pass before God appears to Moshe at the burning bush. Decades and decades pass, during which time he has no contact at all with his kin in Egypt.

So why indeed is Moshe, of all people, selected? Why does God charge him with the task of liberating the people from their bondage? The answer is that in the fulfillment of this particular task, distance was not disqualification. It was an absolute necessity.

If it persists long enough, evil comes to be accepted as the normal state of things. It was certainly the opinion of the Pharaohs, that Jewish bondage was as natural and immutable as the annual ebb and flow of the Nile. Pharaoh had no framework with which to understand the cry “let my people go.” The cry could just as well have been “let the sun not rise.”

Even more tragically, the Jews themselves had assimilated this way of thinking. Jews were slaves. Such was their fate. It was an issue with as much moral charge to it as the direction of the wind. The people’s resistance to Moshe’s first efforts to confront Pharaoh, and their periodic desire to return to bondage even after the Exodus are powerful testaments to this.

Who could see things otherwise? Who could stand up and rail against an obscene injustice that everyone else had long since accepted as normal? Only the outsider could. Only Moshe, who saw himself as an outsider in the palace, and whose sense of morality and justice had never been anesthetized by the institutionalization of evil, could see the outrage of bondage. Only Moshe could be so convinced of the righteousness of his cause, that he could stare defiantly into the eyes of the most powerful man on earth, and not blink. Only Moshe would have the stamina, resiliency and tenacity to see the mission through to its end. And this is why God did not allow Moshe to decline the mission. Moshe the outsider, Moshe who alone could see what others had become blind to, was the only one who could get the job done.

We are a people of Moshe. It is our task to see and point out the flaws and injustices that the general society has come to accept. This week’s parsha reminds us to never relinquish this demanding role — the one that underlies our claim to being a holy people.

Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles.