Celebrating Human Initiative

Shelah Lekha By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jun 8, 2002 / 5762 | Torah Commentary

A nation’s calendar is a contract between its past and future. What we choose to remember is indicative of what we value. Our calendar is always a projection of our priorities. The subject matter that joins this week’s parashah and haftarah, the conquest of Canaan, sheds some light on why one event and not another embeds itself in our collective memory. Two spy stories frame a punishing detour in the harsh surroundings of the wilderness. If the first had been successful, the second would have come far sooner. But the fearful report of ten of the twelve chieftains sent by Moses so dispirited the Israelites that it triggered a popular uprising that took divine intervention to quash. Had Moses, the object of their wrath, not pleaded for them, God would have aborted the experiment to advance civilization with a model nation. Instead the final verdict was to slow it down: all adults above the age of twenty were to expire in the wilderness. Redemption from Egypt had not turned slaves into warriors ready to defend their freedom.

Some thirty–eight years later, Joshua, who had been a dissenting voice in that original espionage party and now Moses’ successor, sent but two agents to spy out the region of Jericho. This time the spies reported on what they had heard rather than seen: “All the inhabitants of the land are quaking before us (2:24).” The military prowess of a new generation of Israelites, hardened by austerity, had reached across the Jordan.

In the biblical text no precise date is given for either event. Of interest to me is the arresting fact that the Rabbis sought to fix the date of only one. They had a penchant for anchoring turning points in time, like the sixth of Sivan for the revelation at Mount Sinai commemorated annually by Shavuot (BT Shabbat 86b). Thus the Mishnah declares that it was the ninth of Av when God made the decision not to let the former slaves invade the promised land (Taanit 4:6). In fact, the Mishnah correlates the two summer fast days, the seventeenth of Tammuz and the ninth of Av (the former from sunrise to sunset, the latter a full twenty–four hours), each with five calamities apiece for remembrance, mostly related to the destruction of the Second Temple and its aftermath. Another exception is the breaking of the first tablets of the Ten Commandments by Moses, which the Mishnah assigns to the seventeenth of Tammuz.

My point in citing these sad anniversaries is that the Rabbis preserved no comparable effort to celebrate annually the moments of triumph that punctuated the history of ancient Israel. No one ever tried to compute the time of year when the spies infiltrated Jericho or Joshua crossed the Jordan or the walls of Jericho came down. Given the centrality of the land of Israel to the Bible and Judaism, why were its conquest — or other milestones like the capture of Jerusalem by David or the building of the First Temple by his son, Solomon — not registered by the Rabbis in the liturgical calendar for commemoration? Could these events not have been aggregated and associated with the fifteenth of Av, which, according to the Mishnah, was a day of unbounded joy (a kind of Sadie Hawkins Day in reverse), though without any historical resonance (Taanit 4:8)? Clearly, the pattern betrays a preference.

The Mishnah itself does refer once to a divergent document compiled in a different spirit (Taanit 2:8). The Scroll of Fast Days (Megillat Taanit) was the opposite of what its name implied: a cryptic list of some thirty–five days on which it was forbidden to fast or mourn. The hand of God in history had sanctified these days as times of celebration. They included dates of military victories; of the death of tyrants like Antiochus Epiphanes, Alexander Jannai and Herod; of the dedication of the newly built walls of Jerusalem by Nehemiah and the destruction of the Samaritan temple by John Hyrcanus. The two days of Purim and eight days of Hanukkah were also listed. In all, the Scroll spanned some six hundred years from the middle of the fifth century BCE to the middle of the second century CE.

The Talmud attributes the authorship to one Hananiah ben Hizkiyah and his allies, while modern scholarship has identified them as members of the House of Shammai, the religious party that inspired the revolt against Rome in 66 CE (BT Shabbat 13b). In other words, The Scroll of Fast Days was part of the campaign by the zealots to mobilize public support. The many instances of divine favor for the Judeans, the descendants of ancient Israel, would embolden the weak–kneed to take up arms against the Romans, as the Maccabees had done against the Syrians, with, hopefully, the same glorious results. Although The Scroll makes no mention of the conquest by Joshua (in fact skipping over the entire First Temple period), its very existence confirms that at one point the Jewish calendar exuded a mood of triumph. As late as the beginning of the third century, the Mishnah attests, The Scroll still enjoyed the status of a sacred and binding halakhic document.

Its strident nationalism, however, fell afoul of the change in political views among the Rabbis in the third and fourth centuries. The devastating consequences of three successive revolts against Rome from 66 to 135 CE drove them to tamp down the messianic fervor that fueled them. Tacking toward accommodation, the Rabbis urged Jews not to revolt against their non–Jewish overlords, nor repossess the land of Israel by force nor speculate on when the Messiah might come (BT Ketubot 111a). In addition, they now permitted fasting and mourning on the days in The Scroll of Fast Days, for the destruction of the Temple had cast a pall on all of Jewish life. The only days left untouched by the sadness of exile were Purim and Hanukkah (BT Rosh Hashanah 18b).

It is this shift in political strategy that eventually gave our calendar its lugubrious coloration. With Jews in a state of constant precariousness, the acceptance of subservience became the better part of valor! Political sagacity rather than the exercise of military force served to protect Jewish interests better in a sea of religious tension. Not till the end of the nineteenth century did a band of secular Jews, dejected by the fading prospects of real emancipation, repudiate the enervating passivity of rabbinic leadership and embrace a pro–active Zionist program. With the creation of the State of Israel, the Jewish calendar once again opened itself to the celebration of human initiative. The current balance in our calendar between moments of sagacity and piety, of victory and defeat, of divine compassion and human courage is precisely the combination that Israel will need to transcend the straits of its present ordeal.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Sh’lakh L’kha are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld