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STAR STRUCK

by Ranon Cortell    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

In this week's Torah portion, the Children of Israel commit one of the greatest and most unexpected mutinies of all time. Despite their numerous experiences with rebellion and its subsequent quashing, they arise once again, defy Moses, and refuse to enter the land of Israel.

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In this week's Torah portion, the Children of Israel commit one of the greatest and most unexpected mutinies of all time. Despite their numerous experiences with rebellion and its subsequent quashing, they arise once again, defy Moses, and refuse to enter the land of Israel. After so many years of anticipating a home where they would at last be free - subject only to the merciful will of Hashem, a land flowing with rivers of milk and sweet honey - they succumb to the dire warnings of the ten spies that they will never overcome their enemies and that the land has been found to devour its inhabitants.

After reading this account, one cannot help but wonder how the people could be so quickly brought to hopelessness, after seeing Hashem crush a myriad of apparently invincible armies over the past two years with the expressed intent of whisking the Jewish people away to their Promised Land. How could they doubt Hashem's desire and ability to decimate the native Canaanaite nations and subsequently protect His chosen people in the land He had sworn to them so long ago?

After the ten rebellious spies claim that there is no chance that the Jewish people would be able to conquer the powerful Canaanites, Caleb splinters from his compatriots and boldly proclaims, "We will go up, go up into this land and we will inherit it" (Numbers 13:30). How exactly was Caleb reassuring the people that they would overcome these dangerous obstacles, and how is he addressing the spies' claim? The Talmud (Tractate Sotah 34a) states that the spies were not only claiming that the Jewish people did not possess the strength to defeat the Canaanites, but that Hashem Himself was powerless to remove the Canaanites from the land and install His people in their stead. How were the spies, noted leaders and wise men of Israel, capable of making such a gross error?

The commentator Shiras Dovid explains that although Hashem is obviously capable of anything and everything in this world, He restricts Himself to operate according to certain guidelines. In this case, it was required that the current inhabitants of Israel be on a tremendously low level to deserve the utter destruction that they ultimately received. Only when their "basket was full of sins" could the Jews destroy them in war. Upon searching and analyzing the Canaanites and their lifestyle, the spies determined that the Canaanites were still not bad enough to be deserving of complete slaughter and that the Jews would therefore be incapable of defeating them in battle. The truth is that the spies were, in part, correct. The Sforno, a classic 16th century commentator, points out that had the Jews immediately entered the land as planned, the Canaanites would have instantly fled out of fear of the Jews, obviating the need for any bloodshed, because they were not yet deserving of destruction. Only because of the extra forty years, resulting from the spies' bad report, did the Canaanites have the "opportunity" to fill up their basket with continued sin and reach the point that they were deserving of annihilation. As a result, when the Jewish people finally entered the land of Israel, they were forced to fight constant battles against these thorns in their side, rather than comfortably watch while the enemy fled.

With this explanation, we can understand Caleb's reply. Caleb did not debate the truth of the spies' statement that the Canaanites were not deserving of destruction. Rather, he demanded that regardless of the apparent hopelessness of their situation, they must still ascend and have faith that Hashem will somehow fulfill His promise. As Rashi explains Caleb's statement, "Even if we were commanded to ascend to the heavens, we would be obligated to get a ladder and begin climbing." Caleb insisted that we cannot question Hashem's commands, even with our flawless logic. We must have total faith that His demands of us are ultimately for the best and, despite the fact that the odds defy us, throw the dice and put forth our best effort.

The Maharal, author of a classic commentary on Rashi, wonders why Caleb uses such a fantastic example, "ascending to the heavens", something which is certainly impossible. Why does he exaggerate Hashem's demand with such a hapless parable? The Maharal explains that Caleb was hinting that even if the heavens (i.e. the stars) seem to favor the Canaanites, we must not be daunted by this apparently indestructible ally and must still ascend, for we have the ability to overcome the stars. The Talmud teaches that the stars possess certain G-d given powers and are capable, in a mystical fashion, of determining world-wide events. Although Hashem ultimately controls the stars, He has delegated to them the powers to instill character traits into humans and determine their fates. But Hashem, as the Talmud explains, has given the Jewish people the power to individually conquer these powerful forces by keeping His commandments and following in His perfect ways. If only we act in the correct fashion, we can become our own stars and determine our own destinies. It was to this claim of the spies - that the Canaanites' prospering was evidence of some powerful hold of star-wrought fate - that Caleb replied. He implored that if the Jewish people would only do the will of Hashem, they would ascend to the very heavens and restructure the apparently unchanging orders of the constellations.

A third explanation of Caleb's puzzling words comes from the Kli Yakar, another popular 16th century commentary, who addresses Caleb's double language, "We will go up, go up," and explains that the second ascension refers to a spiritual growth. The spies claimed, and rightly so, that in order to enter the land and be worthy of Hashem's miraculous help, the Jews would have to ascend to even higher spiritual levels. Only then could they be confident of victory. The Ki Yakar takes this even further and explains that when the spies demanded that the enemy was too strong and impossible to destroy, they were not referring to the belligerent Canaanites, but to a much more powerful enemy, the yetzer harah (evil inclination). The spies reasoned that the Jews could never enter the Holy Land, because in order to do so they would have to trample their evil inclination which was far too strong to overcome. It was to this incorrect assumption that Caleb demands, "We will rise above the yetzer harah, and we will ascend to our promised inheritance and conquer it." We cannot be cowed by this wily adversary; we must rise to the occasion and conquer our desires.

The resounding message of all these commentaries and the general story of the spies is that we must have total faith in the kindness and strength of Hashem, despite the forces that oppose this trust so vehemently. Although some things seem logically impossible, we must realize that our intelligence is incapable of omnipotent comprehension, and only Hashem understands the true nature of all things, and it is He that demands we do His will. Despite the fact that fate seems to inextricably oppose us, we must be aware that G-d controls all things and promises us that we can overcome all apparent obstacles if we serve Him with a loving heart. Finally, despite the iron clutch of our evil inclination, we must struggle against it with every bit of our strength because Hashem assures us that we are capable of overcoming it. To reach these lofty ideals is truly one of our most difficult struggles in life. After all, even the generation of the exodus, at their incredibly high level, failed to some degree in their level of faith. But we cannot desist because of the path's difficulty. Rather, we must slowly but surely plod the path of faith by trying to recognize Hashem's loving hand in our everyday life, and thereby become aware of His omnipotence and His ultimate love for us. Once we become aware of Hashem's complete justice and love, we can truly put our trust in His all-powerful hands and vanquish the doubts that plague us.

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Ranon Cortell, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington while attending the University of Maryland.

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