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Parshas Shelach (5770)

Of Flotillas and Futility: The Secret to Israel's Survival

As a rabbi who teaches at synagogue every Saturday morning, I am always combing the headlines for any news item that can possibly tie in to the weekly Torah portion and provide a timely and relevant message for those attending my class.

Well, wouldn’t you know it? This week’s current events in Gaza are almost a perfect parallel to the events that transpired with our ancestors and the spies they sent into Israel over 3300 years ago, as recorded in the weekly Torah portion, Parshas Shelach.

Ten of the spies sent by Moses badmouthed the Land of Israel, saying that it was a dangerous place full of really dangerous people, and most of the Jewish people believed them and lost faith in G-d and wept bitterly. Only a small minority - Caleb and Joshua - spoke up in defense of Israel, saying that the land that G-d promised to His people is really a beautiful and special place (see Numbers 13:1-14:45 for the whole story).

History kind of repeats itself, doesn’t it? After the whole confrontation on the Turkish-run flotilla headed to Gaza this week, most of the world bashed Israel, while only a small minority came to its defense.

But there is an even deeper parallel. The Torah tells us the aftermath of the sin of the spies and what happened to the majority of Jews who followed them. It was decreed by G-d that they would all die in the desert and would not merit to see the Land of Israel that they were so willing to slander and bash.

More than that, our Sages teach us that as a result of this grievous sin, all future generations of the Jewish people would suffer persecution and exile. As the Talmud in Taanis 29a expounds on the verse in this week’s portion “The entire assembly raised up and issued its voice; the people wept that night” (Numbers 14:1): Said Rabbah in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: That night was the eve of Tisha B’Av [the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av]. G-d said to them: “Atem bechisem bechiya shel chinam, v’ani kovea lachem bechiya ledoros – [As] you wept for no reason [on this night], so will I establish [this night] for you [as a time of] weeping for all generations.”

And ever since that fateful night in the desert so many millennia ago, when the Jewish people accepted lashon hara (slander) against the Land of Israel and ultimately against G-d Himself, Tisha B’Av has become a time of great suffering for the Jewish people, as both the First and Second Temples were burned on the Ninth of Av and the Jews were exiled from their land, as well as many other calamities that befell our people during this period (see for a brief listing of infamous events that took place on Tisha B'Av throughout history).

The lesson to be learned from all this is so powerful – and was brought home to me in a big way after witnessing the events of this past week.

You see, the Jewish people who believed the spies’ negative report and lost hope in G-d and His “Promised Land” had every right to be afraid of the land. After all, the spies weren’t lying – they actually saw huge, scary-looking giants and other dangerous people and things throughout the land. The Jews’ great sin was that they should have realized that although according to the “rules of history” there was absolutely no way that they alone could conquer the land of Israel with all its intimidating inhabitants, Jewish history is not run according to normal rules, and G-d could easily defeat their enemies for them in a miraculous way if they merited it – just as He had done for them many times in Egypt. As G-d said to Moses after the Jews lost faith upon hearing the spies’ negative report: “How long will this people provoke Me, and how long will they not have faith in Me, despite all the miracles I have performed in their midst?” (Numbers 14:11).

And as a “quid pro quo” (measure for measure) punishment for the Jews’ loss of faith in G-d and His special Divine Providence over them, G-d decreed that throughout the generations they would indeed be subjected to the laws of history, with the inevitable result being exile and persecution.

The lesson here for us is that only when the Jewish people realize that in spite of what the world says to slander the Jews and Israel, and in spite of our small numbers and our being surrounded by intimidating and dangerous neighbors, we can overcome all challenges because we have G-d and His Divine Providence on our side – then and only then will we merit His salvation and protection. Without G-d, all our efforts will ultimately be futile, but with faith we can survive and thrive.

This realization really struck me hard this week as I watched virtually the entire “civilized” world (with few exceptions) go crazy on Israel this week for what happened aboard the Mavi Marmara flotilla, without even bothering to check out the facts first. To be honest, when I saw the across-the-board reaction to Israel, full of vicious, hate-filled lies and slander, I almost lost hope myself. After all, it felt like we Jews and Israel were all alone amidst a sea of angry enemies hell-bent on vilifying us and wishing our destruction – with no one to come to our aid. How can Israel survive in such a world? I felt a lot like my ancestors must have felt 3300 years ago when they first heard the hope-dashing, slander-filled report of the spies against the land of Israel.

I then realized the truth - that Israel is alone – as the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam said about us “Behold! It is a nation that will dwell alone and not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9) – and yet we have nothing to fear so long as we believe in G-d and His Divine Providence over us.

The Sin of the Spies and its tragic aftermath teaches us the secret to Israel’s survival. It is not this nation or that nation or even the United Nations that will ultimately protect us and save us from the destruction that our enemies so eagerly await and wish upon us – all that is futility without our faith in the One Who controls all nations – our Father in Heaven.

By: Rabbi David Zauderer

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