As the Tory leadership contest continues, all the questions seem to turn to what will the candidates be able to do by Oct 31st in order to achieve Brexit.
Three years on from the referendum result – the UK is still split down the middle. Whatever decision the new Prime Minister takes; it seems there will be a lot of people very unhappy.
In this week’s Parsha there was a decision taken, not by a democratic vote, but by Divine command – to conquer and settle the Land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the land of Israel.
This seemed like the nation would be 100% in favour of Deserexit (Leaving the desert), yet we see that there were some Remainers in the Jewish people, and they weren’t just any people, they were the princes of the tribes!
However, from the pshat reading we don’t see that. They didn’t want to remain in the desert – there was just no other option. The reasons for not going to the land was a simple fear of being unable to conquer the land, as the Torah says ‘However, the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified, and there we saw even the offspring of the giant……we are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.’ (Bamidbar 13:28.31)
However, this doesn’t really make sense. How could ten of the spies come back with a defeatist report? They had seen with their own eyes how God had sent a series of plagues that brought Egypt, the strongest and longest-lived of all the empires of the ancient world, to its knees. They had seen how the Egyptian army with its cutting-edge military technology, the horse-drawn chariot, drowned in the sea while the Israelites passed through it on dry land. Egypt was far stronger than the Canaanites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and other minor kingdoms that they would have to confront in conquering the land. Nor was this an ancient memory. It had happened not much more than a year before.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe who raises this question, gives a radical version of events where he states that the spies were not afraid of failure, they were afraid of success!
As Rabbi Sacks explains his idea ‘If they entered the land, their lifestyle of camping around the Sanctuary, eating manna from heaven, living in continuous contact with the Shechinah would vanish. They would have to fight battles, maintain an army, create an economy, farm the land, worry about the weather and their crops, and all the other thousand distractions that come from living in the world. What would happen to their closeness to God? They would be preoccupied with mundane and material pursuits. Here they could spend their entire lives learning Torah, lit by the radiance of the Divine. There they would be one more nation in a world of nations with the same kind of economic, social, and political problems that every other nation has to deal with.’
I remember a discussion I had with my Rabbis in Yeshivat Hakotel all those years ago. They explained to me that Yeshiva was a bubble, a wonderful bubble, where we could immerse ourselves in a world of Torah for one or two years in order to prepare ourselves for life in the real world. Or as one of my Rabbis said ‘Yeshiva begins when Yeshiva ends’ meaning you will only know if your learning at Yeshiva has been successful when you find yourself in University or at work – are the values, the ideals, the Torah you learnt and experienced being lived in the wider world? The ultimate challenge of being a Jew.
Ten of the spies did not want to risk contaminating Judaism by bringing it into contact with the real world. They desired to remain in the embrace of Hashem’s protection and the endless embrace of His all-encompassing love here in the desert. They in essence wanted to remain in the spiritual and rarefied atmosphere of Yeshiva. There is something beautiful and noble about this desire, but not what was required of them or the Jewish people. The spies demoralised the people and provoked the anger of God.
As Rabbi Sacks says ‘The Jewish project – the Torah as the constitution of the Jewish nation under the sovereignty of God – is about building a society in the land of Israel that so honours human dignity and freedom that it will one day lead the world to say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deut. 4:6). The Jewish task is not to fear the real world but to enter and transform it, healing some of its wounds and bringing to places often shrouded in darkness fragments of Divine light.
We live in a world of extremes but as always the answer is somewhere in the middle. Hashem did not take us straight out of Egypt to Israel – he made sure there was Matan Torah to give us the eternal guide for our nation. We cannot engage with the world unless we have a deep and solid connection to Torah, the growing assimilation rates in the Western world are a proof of that. We all need our ‘yeshiva and sem’.
Yet we also have to engage with the world around us, it is our mission to be an ‘Or La Goyim’ and to take the responsibility to earn a living and to be a functioning member of society.
The Gemara tells of R. Shimon b. Yochai living for thirteen years in a cave. When he emerged, he could not bear to see people engaged in such earthly pursuits as ploughing a field (Shabbat 33b). He held that engagement with the world was fundamentally incompatible with the heights of spirituality (Brachot 35b). But the mainstream held otherwise. It maintained that “Torah study without an occupation will in the end fail and lead to sin” (Mishnah Avot 2:2).
The discussions will go on in the UK and beyond with Brexit.
The discussion will go on within the Jewish people with the limits of our engagement with the world.