July 21, 2024
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Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, a massive number of Russian Jews, largely uneducated in Jewish tradition, immigrated to Eretz Yisrael. With loving concern, Rav Avrohom Pam, zt’l, one of the gedolei hador and the rosh yeshiva of Torah v’Daas in Brooklyn, founded Shuvu, a network of schools that provides Russian immigrants in Israel with a comprehensive Torah education. Toward the end of his life, he was physically frail, yet Rav Pam worked tirelessly to raise funds and awareness on behalf of Shuvu, giving himself to saving a generation of Jewish children.

At one point, facing a budget crisis, one of the schools was in jeopardy. Without it, the kids would most likely end up back in the non-religious public school system. Management consultants were urgently summoned, and experts analyzed the financial situation and demographics to determine the viability of the school. In the end, they found that the resources had indeed been exhausted, and they regretfully concluded that they would need to close down the fledgling yeshiva.

Known for his mild mannered, gentle demeanor, now the gadol was incredulous. “Our tafkid, our duty here, is not to determine if this project is viable,” fumed Rav Pam. “It is to ensure that it is viable — to make it happen!”

~

Our sedrah recounts the story of the Meraglim, as they were dispatched to spy out the Promised Land and to return with their findings. Were the residents there strong or weak? Were they few or numerous? Were the cities there open or fortified? What was the topography like?

The Meraglim gave their report: וַיְסַפְּרוּ־לוֹ וַיֹּאמְרוּ בָּאנוּ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר שְׁלַחְתָּנוּ וְגַם זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ הִוא, “The Land…does indeed flow with milk and honey…” וְהֶעָרִים בְּצֻרוֹת גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד וְגַם־יְלִדֵי הָעֲנָק רָאִינוּ שָׁם, “however, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large…We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we…!” (13:27-28)

“That land…” they continued, “is one that devours its settlers! All the people that we saw in it were men of great size;…we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves — and that’s how we must have looked to them…”

The Ramban challenges the premise of punishment. Why should the Meraglim be criticized for reporting the truth and presenting the facts from their perspective? The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Likutei Sichos, Vol. 13) teaches that it would have been legitimate to discuss and analyze in natural terms how Bnei Yisrael could potentially enter the Land. For example, they could have reported that they were outnumbered by their adversaries, and that they also apparently had advantages in skill and power. However, their focus changed to an issue of whether or not they could achieve their mission. This did call for rebuke.

The Rebbe tells us: a Jew doesn’t ask “if,” but only “how.” Whether at home, at work or in our avodas Hashem and midos development, we all face regular nisyonos in our personal lives. When we are faced with a challenge in fulfilling His Will, however, we have already been assured that Hashem will be with us. That truth is not up for discussion or consideration.

~

וּמָה הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר־הוּא ישֵׁב בָּהּ הֲטוֹבָה הִוא אִם־רָעָה וּמָה הֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר־הוּא יוֹשֵׁב בָּהֵנָּה הַבְּמַחֲנִים אִם בְּמִבְצָרִים:

“And what of the land they inhabit? Is it good or bad? And what of the cities in which they reside are they in camps or in fortresses?” (13:19)

Moshe Rabbeinu was providing the spies with a sign: If they would say that the nations dwell במחנים, in unwalled cities, exposed and open, it would be an indication that they were strong. Those who are unafraid of their enemies do not cower behind fences. If they would say, however, that they live in מבצרים, walled cities, it would mean that they were weak and could be easily conquered. Despite this, the Meraglim fell prey to a lack of self-confidence and the bitter stuckness of conceptzia, a fossilized state of self-imposed exile. Such galusdik group-think weakens and paralyzes the power and potential of Knesses Yisrael. Entrapped in a defeatist mentality, blinded from seeing their collective spiritual and national potential, the Meraglim missed Moshe’s direction and intent.

As the Meraglim interpreted every detail of their experience through the cracked, foggy lens of conceptzia, they even felt they had to drum up some Amalek-phobia: עֲמָלֵק יוֹשֵׁב בְּאֶרֶץ הַנֶּגֶב, “Amalek dwells in the Negev!” Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains their motivation for mentioning this previous trauma. It would remind Bnei Yisrael that they had already been “burnt” by Amalek, and the same thing could happen again and again. In their desire to avoid facing and overcoming that trauma, the Meraglim sought to frighten the community, to weaken their resolve and erode confidence in their path, and thereby justify “closing down” the nation’s mission to conquer and settle the Land.

Our sedrah is teaching us to fix our own tragic “Meraglim mentality” today. It demands that we shift our perspective from “if” we’ll be able to accomplish settling the Land to “how” we will achieve this shlichus and privilege. As we once again face an “Amalek” in the South by the Negev, as well as evil Jihadists in the “hill country” of the North — and even within “mixed cities” in the heart of the Land, it is a critical moment for us to internalize this sedra’s message.

While perhaps it was a necessary, temporary method for short-term gains, after Simchas Torah/October 7 it ought to be clear that the conceptzia of investing billions of dollars into technologically advanced border defenses along otef Azza (the communities along the Gaza border), from security walls and fences, to bypass roads, checkpoints and iron dome defense systems, is just creating contemporary מבצרים, “walls of weakness.” It should be obvious that this cannot be the solution. Parshas Shelach invites us to attach ourselves to the ruach acheres (14:24), the “distinctive spirit” of courage and emunah of Calev and Yehoshua.

We are a people of great vision and strength, of tenacious faith in the victory of truth, and of joyful expectation of redemption! May we be confident in Hashem’s promise that we will fully inherit the entire Land, that we will be zocheh to experience the restoration of Jewish independence, and take up the positivity of Yehoshua and Calev, and the strength and deterrence of our kings, David and Shlomo.

May we always remember our tafkid, our duty and purpose here, and to ensure it. B’ezras Hashem, we can make it happen…

עָלֹה נַעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ כִּי־יָכוֹל נוּכַל לָהּ

“By all means, let us go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it!” (13:30)


Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpiah of OU-NCSY,  founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife Ora and their family.

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