Faith VS Realism
By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov, Jax, Fl
If only G-d would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank. – Woody Allen (Without Feathers)
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Abraham wants to upgrade his PC to Windows 7. Isaac is incredulous. “Pop,” he says, “you can’t run Windows 7 on your old, slow 386! Everybody knows that you need at least a Pentium or Celeron chip with a minimum of 3 GB of memory in order to multitask effectively with Windows 7.”
But Abraham, the man of faith, gazed calmly at his son and replied, “Not to worry, God will provide the RAM, my son.”
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The Ba’al Shem Tov once sent two students abroad to procure wine for Passover. In deference to their saintly mentor, the messengers did not spare any effort in producing the highest standard of wine in both Kashrus and quality.
They meticulously observed every step of the process from the selection of the grapes to their pressing, in order to protect against any contamination. The wine was finally sealed in sturdy casks and transported back under steady supervision.
Upon arrival, the casks were unsealed in order for the condition of the cargo to be examined. But as it turned out they had inadvertently left the unsealed casks unattended for a brief period.
Imagine the grave disappointment of the disciples when they were greeted upon their return by the gentile custodian, who while chewing on a half eaten loaf of bread, exclaimed: “I must tell you that wine there is truly delicious!”
Ouch! Those were not words that they wanted to hear. Having been exposed to Chametz, the wine was completely compromised and could no longer be used by the Ba’al Shem Tov. It was a total loss. With broken spirits they approached their teacher to explain how all their valiant efforts have become dissipated and washed away in such a bizarre fashion.
“Yes, yes,” declared the Ba’al Shem Tov with a gaze of deep sympathy and sorrow in his eyes: “You have indeed done everything you could; you have truthfully made every possible effort to guard the wine. Trouble is that you were so careful you forgot to ask G-d to watch over you. You were so in charge you left no place at all for His protection!”
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One of life’s perpetual struggles is where to draw the line between faith in G-d and the need for human initiative and intervention – when to step back and let G-d work His magic and when to step forward and give it all we got. The nature of this conundrum is such that no matter how much we learn, the line seems to remain forever blurred, which makes the subject so fascinating.
The dissonance between faith in the Almighty’s providence and the need for human effort and endeavor, if any, is a prominent subject of this week’s Parsha, Shlach.
Fourteen months after their Exodus from Egyptian bondage, the Children of Israel stood poised to conquer the Promised Land. On behest of the people, Moshe dispatched twelve scouts to survey the land and report back on its nature and conquerability. Forty days later, on the tragic date of the Ninth of Av, the twelve men returned sharply divided. While they unanimously lauded the land’s material abundance, ten of the twelve proceeded to defame it as “A land that consumes its inhabitants.”
Our Parsha proceeds to relate the story of the twelve scouts and their ill-fated mission in illustrious detail. It describes how the ten detractors – each a leader of his tribe – wailed and ranted about how fortified were the cities and how strong were its people; how they struck terror and doubt into the heart of the people and caused a national hysteria to consume the nation.
Adamant that the Jews had best remain encamped in the desert, the men implored the people to abandon their mission of conquering the Land. And discard the mission they did. In their crazed state of fear and confusion they actually proceeded to demand a new leader who would return them to Egypt.
Only two of the spies – Calev from the tribe of Yehudah and Yehoshua from the tribe of Ephraim – insisted that the Jews can and must proceed with the Divine directive to enter the Land.
Considering the fact that Moshe had personally handpicked these tribal leaders so that that they might act responsibly, it remains to be understood what caused them to turn so sour. How could they have so patently defied G-d by denying His ability to conquer the land of Canaan?
The question is farther exacerbated in light of the untold wonders that the Israelites have experienced during and after their miraculous liberation from Egyptian bondage. Could the G-d who turned water in to blood, split the Red Sea, obliterated the mighty Egyptian army and fed them Manna from heaven, have run out of steam? Could the Heavenly Master, who transformed the sterile desert into a flourishing habitat for an entire nation of millions, lack the ability to prevail over the “powerful’ inhabitants of Canaan?
The answer, according to Chassidic thought, is that it was not G-d’s capacity that these men called into question, but rather their own. What frightened these high-minded spiritual personalities was not the Almighty’s ability to get them into the land, but rather the nature of their own mission as a people, to conquer and inhabit the land.
For over a year they had experienced a wholly spiritual existence. Manna fell from heaven and water flowed from a rock; “Clouds of Glory” sheltered them from heat, cold, scorpions and enemy arrows – guiding and paving their way through the desert. Free of all material concern, they set their goals and aspirations to absorbing their newly acquired Divine wisdom. Now, having scarcely adjusted to their idyllic routine, they were being asked to leave their desert paradise, raise an army, conquer and settle the land, and eke earthly bread out of its soil.
Here in the desert, they reasoned, sustained by the Manna from heaven and shielded from the corporeal and hostile world, “Our souls are free to ponder the depth of the Divine wisdom and cleave to the heavenly source. There, we shall face political and economic distractions intrinsic to an earth-bound existence. “Why abandon our secure celestial existence for a life subsisting off the land?”
“If Yehoshua and Calev are indeed correct that it is G-d’s desire for us to conquer and settle the land of Canaan; to inhabit and transform the corporeal world through direct involvement and dependency, then why all the obstacles?”
“If we are meant to employ our own human effort and ability to realize the land’s potential for holiness and sanctity – if we are meant to tame the material world and construct of it an abode for the Divine presence through our own physical efforts – why then would the Almighty plant in our path fortified barriers and sons of giants; obstruction that are not humanly surmountable?”
It is one thing to leave behind the miraculous fare and security provided by the Manna from heaven and Clouds of Glory in exchange for earthly bread and civil armies, but it’s another thing to contend with gigantic forces and impenetrable blockades.
It is fathomable for G-d to require us to apply our own intellect and ingenuity to accomplish our mission in life, but it’s not fathomable for us to have to overcome forces that are by nature bigger and mightier than us. It is fathomable to have to toil hard in order to fulfill our divine mission, but it’s not fathomable to have to penetrate stone fortresses because that would require divine intervention, which is precisely what we are supposedly being asked to forsake by leaving behind the desert paradise and conquering the land of Canaan.
“G-d as it were,” to paraphrase the logic of the ten scouts, “Could not possibly want it both ways.” He either wanted us to live by the sweat of our own brow, or in his Divine shelter and embrace. He either had in mind a world where man is beholden to supernatural Divine mercy for every move and turn, or a world governed by self effort and reliance, but not both at the same time. For what purpose would that paradox serve?
G-d, the scouts asserted, could not possibly want mankind to be caught in a universe where faith and realism are interdependent – a world in which faith requires realism and realism requires faith for that is neither realism nor faith.
Yet the spies erred in doubting Israel’s Divinely stated mission of conquering and settling the land of Canaan – to realize the land’s potential for holiness and sanctity despite the abnormal obstacles and challenges for which they would need G-d’s intervention every step of the way. As a result of this blunder, Israel’s inheritance of the land of Canaan was postponed for forty years, until a new generation, prepared to take on the challenge of the land, had reached maturity.
The tragic debacle of the twelve scouts – synonymous with Tisha B’Av, the source of all the strife and struggle in Jewish history – contains many a profound lesson, not the least of which is the fact that life, as G-d meant it to be, is a partnership between man and his Heavenly maker. We must hence recognize our own role and potential within the greater Divine scheme and the Divine role in every nuance of our life.
These two ideals; trust in G-d and in our G-d given potential, provide the necessary framework for a proper and holy existence. This is where the spy’s erred; they believed that it was either one or the other.
There are those who continue to repeat the scouts miscalculation: “Sure,” they say, “There are times in life when we must put our fate in the hands of G-d – situations that are beyond our control, such as fatal illness, infertility, certain forms of barbarism and oppression Heaven forbid, and the likes – situations for which we recognize His absolute sovereignty and reign, but there is no need to inject Divine intervention and providence into every area of life where we seem to have a good handle on the situation ourselves.
We must, of course, pray to the Almighty and give him credit for the things that are beyond our control – the ‘Big stuff,’ but not necessarily for that which appears to be the product of our own doing – the ‘Small stuff.’ After all, are we not entitled to our own ‘Four cubits of space’ in this world, where we are responsible for our own achievements, kind of like the separation of church and state?
This of course is by no means meant to deny that we and everything we have come from Him, it’s just that there is no reason to believe the Creator would be averse to allow us a little self control.”
Comes our Parsha and reminds us that this was precisely the fatal logic of the ten scouts who heaped tragedy and disaster upon the nation of Israel for generations to come. The notion that there is any space, object, entity, phenomenon or existence, big or small, which is outside of Him and his purview, is an idolatrous ideology that the Almighty did not allow the generation of the desert to embrace for one moment, hence the many superhuman obstacles in their physical responsibility of conquering and inhabiting the land through natural means, i.e. spies, army, etc…
Conversely, should one take a fatalistic approach to life, espousing that if G-d is in all things and in all places, there is no need or room for man’s effort, for of what use can it possibly be? We are reminded that the desert paradise was not where Israel was meant to remain, but rather in the “Land” of political, social and economic challenges and distractions, intrinsic to an earth-bound subsistence in which constant effort must be made by way of “vessels” for the Divine blessing. Avoiding this Divine ordained responsibility and order, can only result in disaster, heaven forbid, as was the case with the subjects of our Parsha.
The short of it all is, that it is a partnership with man that the Almighty sought by creating this world. It’s obviously not that He needs man’s help or effort; it’s rather that He desired it. He desired it so that man can earn reward and punishment through his actions and that he does not exist on “Bread of shame.”
This notion is farther reiterated in the opening verse of our Parsha: “Shlach lecha anashim, send for yourself people,” Rashi, bothered by the seemingly unnecessary insertion of the word “Lecha”- for yourself, interprets G-d’s response to Moshe as Shlach “l’daatcha” – send them by your own volition, I am not commanding you to do so. So why then did Moshe proceed to send scouts after receiving this inscrutable response from G-d?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that Moshe saw this as a unique opportunity granted by the Almighty to the Jewish people. He perceived this to be G-d’s way of allowing Israel to reach an even higher level in their Divine service via human effort and participation; the human effort that is initiated by man himself.
In G-d’s acceptance of this type of human initiative and effort, according to the Rebbe, Moshe perceived an even higher level of human partnership in the heavenly creation and hence a rare gift from G-d. In a brilliant observation the Rebbe ties together the beginning of the Parsha and the end, which dictates the law of Tzitzit, which is also preformed out of a sense of volunteerism.
In summation, our Parsha contains a clear and fundamental lesson regarding man’s partnership with the Almighty in His purpose for creation. It teaches the Jewish approach towards faith and realism and the critical need for vessels- effort to receive Divine energy and blessing.
By taking to heart this important message we will surely help bring to fruition the true purpose for creation with the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA
The author welcomes your comments, input and criticism: [email protected]