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A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community

Parashat Sh'lah L'kha 5763
Numbers 13:1 - 15:41
June 28, 2003     28 Sivan 5763

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Lewis Warshauer, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS

A visitor to Jerusalem is likely to notice a structure more in keeping with the green flatlands of the Netherlands than the golden hills of the Holy City. The windmill established by British philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore was designed to provide sustenance for the Jews of Jerusalem. It sits today in the district called Yemin Moshe, named in honor of Montefiore.

Montefiore was the greatest funder of the Jews of Palestine in his time, years before political Zionism and the larger waves of aliyah that accompanied it. Montefiore helped not only indigent Jews who had lived in Jerusalem and elsewhere for generations, but also new settlers who had come to create a fresh start in their ancient homeland. One of these was Mordekhai Zoref, who wrote to Montefiore in 1839:

"When I gave heed and saw that the land was pleasing and its merchandise of merit, I said, 'the Holy Land is abundant in sustenance if its soil be worked by vigorous hands, and so I have ventured to plough the earth alone.' " (quoted in David Ben Gurion's Israel: A Personal History)

Mordekhai Zoref's son Joel became one of the founders of Petah Tikvah in 1878. The name of this town, now part of greater Tel Aviv, means Gate of Hope. It reflects the attitude of father and son, and of many of their contemporaries. It was a hope that contradicted the reality of an impoverished country, and, in spite of the efforts of Montefiore and others, a scarcity of outside resources. It was a hope that seemed difficult to fulfill especially since Theodor Herzl, with his dream of an internationally–recognized Jewish homeland, has not yet arrived on the scene.

The attitude of these early Zionist pioneers contrasts favorable with that of their ancestors – the scouts who, in this week's parasha, are sent by Moses to report on the land of Canaan. Mordekhai Zoref and his friends were returning to their homeland after an absence of two thousand years. The scouts of Moses's time were visiting a place where their ancestors had lived only a few hundred years before. At first, their comments were favorable:

We came to the land where you sent us, and surely it flows with milk and honey; and this is its fruit. (Numbers 13:27)

When one of their number, Caleb, demands that the Israelites proceed to go into the land, his colleagues say something very different:

They brought up an evil report of the land which they had spied to the people of Israel, saying, 'The land, through which we have gone to spy, is a land that eats up its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature.' (Numbers 13:32)

These men, sent by Moses, the conveyer of God's authority, saw a good land but despaired of their ability to take hold of it. The early Zionists, with no clear divine backing, and without direction from Herzl (who was later called the new Moses) found a troubled land yet gained hope in their ability to settle it. Perhaps the difference between these two generations, separated by over three thousand years, is found in Mordekhai Zoref's reference to vigorous hands. The Zionists expected to work, not have things handed to them. When conditions were hard, many left, but a hopeful core remained.

The generation of Israelites in the desert expected the land to be handed to them and collapsed when they detected obstacles. Perhaps God had been too generous in promising them a good land; the same strong hand that had taken them out of Egypt was too strong for the purposes of bringing them to Canaan. The strong hand of God robbed the human hands of vigor. It may be that the low profile God took in modern Zionism (according, at least, to the secularists) was precisely what was necessary for the pioneers to assert themselves.

Shabbat shalom.

The publication and distribution of "A Taste of Torah" commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.