Shelach – The Import of an “It”

The Torah’s narratives are pertinent to every generation. But certain accounts resonate particularly blatantly in certain times.

Like the saga of the ma’apilim, the “insisters,” those Jews in the desert who repented of having spoken negatively of Eretz Yisrael and insisted, even against Moshe’s warning, on short-circuiting (pun intended) the prescribed years of desert wandering and “going up” into the Holy Land immediately.

Some, like the Munkatcher Rebbe Rabbi Chaim Elazar Spira, a fierce opponent of nascent religious Zionism during the early 1900s, saw in the ma’apilim a precursor of “those sects that went up to Eretz Yisrael by force to establish colonies and wage war against the nations.”

Rav Tzadok HaCohein, who died in 1900, had a very different approach. He wrote that the ma’apilim felt that, despite the warning against going directly into the land, it was a case of “Whatever the host tells you to do, heed him, except when he says ‘leave’” [Pesachim 86b].

Although the provenance of that text’s final phrase – “except when he he says ‘leave’” – is questioned by some commentaries, the idea Rav Tzadok means to convey is that the ma’apilim felt justified in disobeying the Divine order, that their plan was in fact ultimately consonant with the Divine will. 

But, while they had a point, Rav Tzakok continues, it was not the right time for such brash action. Noting the first word in Moshe’s admonition that “it [the plan] will not succeed,” Rav Tzadok writes: The word ‘it’ is often interpreted by Chazal to mean ‘it, but not another,’ [here] implying that at another time [in history] ‘it will succeed’.”

And, he concludes, “that is our time, the era leading to Mashiach.”

That era has proven prolonged. And the state of Israel is a reality. The question of whether its establishment was a wise endeavor or a dangerous one is moot today. We can only hope that the redemption Rav Tzadok saw implied by the pasuk – even if it didn’t take place in the 1900s – will happen soon, speedily, in our days.

© 2014 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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