Why Was This Time Different?
The Torah’s telling of the Israelites’ journeys in the wilderness is in many ways a story of shortage: shortage of food (at least, desirable food) water – and hope. One commodity was rarely in short supply: fear.
God’s destruction of the Egyptians at the Sea, toward the beginning of the Israelites march, should have proven that God’s power and reliability to the Israelites. But it did not. Having witnessed the collapse of an enemy they knew and could see, they could not imagine the conquest of enemies they did not know and could not see.
This week’s parashah opens with the Israelites having arrived close enough to the promised land for a scouting party to be sent there. The scouts return with a report that exactly echoes what they have been told of the land: it indeed flows with milk and honey (Numbers 13:27.) But when faced with the prospect of going into the land, the scouts describe the local inhabitants as powerful giants and then contradict their earlier favorable description of the land. Now they say: the land devours its inhabitants. All this has the effect of striking fear into the nation as a whole. Their crushed spirits that had kept them from heeding Moses when he came to Egypt to announce their liberation (Exodus 6:9) returned in full force when it came time to actualize that liberation by continuing into the promised land.
The Israelites’ reluctance to move forward into the land turned out to be at least somewhat justified; the land was not empty. The books of Joshua, Judges and Samuel are largely occupied with the constant wars, over hundreds of years, between the Israelites and the other inhabitants of the land.
The last century has witnessed a return to the land comparable in scope to that described in the Bible. The establishment of the State of Israel was successful because the aliyot, immigrations, of the first half of the 1900’s were comprised largely of Jews who were not deterred by the hardships they would face there. On the contrary, they embraced the struggle to establish themselves in the land and took pride precisely in the magnitude of the obstacles they overcame.
What made the difference in the perceptions of the two generations? Why were those who came out of Egypt still burdened by crushed spirits, while the Zionists possessed themselves of striving spirits? It must be that the Zionists had what the early Israelites did not: historical experience as a nation. The people Moses addressed were in the process of being formed into nation. Their ancestors, the patriarchs, had scant experience in the land. By contrast, those Jews who returned to Zion in modern times retained a collective memory of a nation in its land. Though mostly secular, they came with a longing for the land derived from Bible, Midrash, poetry, and centuries of prayer. They were able to overcome the fearfulness that had gripped their ancestors thousands of years before because among all their shortages they possessed something in abundance and made it their anthem: Hatikvah – hope.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.