Fear itself: Torah is meant to be lived in the real world

Dr. Lawrence Layfer

By Lawrence F. Layfer, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Shelach (Numbers 13:1 – 15:41)

“Send men to scout the land of Canaan”…Numbers 13:2 

Out from under Pharaoh’s iron fist, within weeks the Israelites find themselves camped by the border of the Promised Land, poised to enter, and as noted above, a representative group are assigned to take a quick look inside and report back. After the reconnaissance mission, two different conclusions are reached. All agree the bounty of the land was as advertised, and all agree there were some problems in displacing the current inhabitants. One group, the majority, saw that the land offered great reward but with much risk and an uncertain outcome, for “the land eats up its inhabitants, and the people…were of great stature.”  The other group, the minority opinion, saw the same problems, but through different eyes: “the land…is exceedingly good…the people there…are bread for us, their shade is removed…and the Lord is with us.” Panic followed the more frightening report. 

Many commentators offer reasons for the resistance to taking the final step of the journey: persistence of a slave mentality, still undeveloped courage necessary to mount a military campaign, are amongst the most common. In a book called “Torah Studies-Discourses,” an adaptation from the thoughts of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, authored by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, we get different insight. He writes: “the spies were not animated by fear of physical defeat. In the wilderness each of the Israelites’ needs were met by a direct gift from G-d. They did not work for their food. Their bread was the Manna which fell from the heavens; their water came from Miriam’s well…the possession of the land meant a new kind of responsibility. (But) the Manna was to cease. Bread would now only come through toil…miracles would be replaced by labor.” 

The Rebbe notes it was not physical labor itself that caused hesitancy, but rather because the labor would replace their new found spiritual closeness to the Almighty. The spies’ opinion, and the peoples’ fears that followed, was that “spirituality flourishes best in seclusion and withdrawal, in the protected peace of the wilderness, and it was the loss of this that they rebelled against.” Rabbi Sacks sees this as their error in that “the purpose of life lived in Torah is not the elevation of the soul: it is the sanctification of the world…the miracles that sustained the Jews in the wilderness were not the apex of spiritual experience, they were only a preparation for the real task: taking possession of the land of Israel and making it a holy land…spirituality is not self-contained…its essence lies in…extending holiness to everything it touches.”  

Rabban Gamliel (Pirke Avot 2:2) teaches “it is well to combine Torah study with some worldly occupation…(for) all Torah study that is not accompanied with work is destined to cease and to cause sin.”  Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsh says on this statement: “the earth is the place where the individual must live, fulfill their destiny and dwell together with others and that they must utilize the conditions provided in order to live and accomplish their purpose.” Rabbi Pinchas Kehati adds it is through “physical work like plowing, sowing, and reaping, through which man becomes a partner with the Holy One, Blessed be He, in the work of Creation as it is said (Genesis 2:3): ‘which G-d created to do’, which means that G-d created so that man might continue to do…it is the act of doing honorable work that helps preserve and complete the world itself.”  

In Pirke Avot (1:10) Shemayah encourages us to “love work.” On this Pirke d’ Rabbi Nosson comments: “when a person has no work at hand, what should he do? If he has a desolate courtyard or field, let him attend to them. Just as the Torah was given in covenant, so was labor given in covenant, as it is said (Exodus 20:9): ‘six days you shall labor and do all your work and the seventh day shall be a Sabbath to the Lord your G-d’. Even Adam did not taste of anything until he performed some work, as it is said (Genesis 2:15) ‘ And He put him (Adam) in the Garden of Eden to tend to it and keep it’ and only afterwards was he told (Genesis 2:16) ‘from every tree of the garden you shall eat freely.’” And Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant, founder of the Mussar ethics movement, asks us to consider that a person should pursue spiritual development over material welfare, but to remember that aiding another’s material welfare is a significant part of your spiritual development.

There is one other way to consider the lesson of the spies’ different reports. Both saw that the land of Israel was then, as now, and likely to be in the near future, both a dangerous place and a beautiful place. It is up to each individual to choose which they prefer to see. Do you see the land through the eyes of the ten, with danger outweighing beauty, and fear destroying opportunity. Or perhaps you see it through the eyes of Joshua and Caleb, authors of the minority report, as a precious gift from One Who loves us, and offers us from His best fruits. This example stands also as a metaphor for life itself, as each of us tries to decide through which kind of viewpoint we will see our lives and the world around us, as a fearful or beautiful place, as a curse or a blessing, as a gift from G-d to be lusted after or an ordeal to be endured. 

The Torah makes clear which side it thinks we should be on. The symbol of the Ministry of Tourism for the Land of Israel in modern times is a picture of Joshua and Caleb walking, between them a pole carried on each of their shoulders, from which the fruit the land hangs, as the Torah says: “with one cluster of grapes, and they bore it on a pole between the two.” Both the land of Israel, and life itself, offers a sweet reward to those willing to go after it with a yearning. 

Dr. Lawrence Layfer is Emeritus Professor at Rush Medical College and former Chair of Medicine at NorthShore-Skokie.

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