Parshas Shelach (5771)
In this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people send twelve spies to explore the Land of Canaan (Israel) which G-d promised to give them. Ten of the spies come back with a highly negative report about the land – they said, among other things, that the Land was no good since it ‘devours its inhabitants’, and all the people they saw there were giants and that they felt like grasshoppers in comparison – and this greatly discouraged the Jewish people and caused them to lose faith in their ability to conquer the Land (see Numbers 14:1-38 for the tragic aftermath of this biblical “spy story”).
At one point in the narrative, the other two spies who did not join in all this “Israel-bashing” - Joshua and Caleb - tried to calm the Jewish people and assure them that they couldn’t possibly lose with G-d on their side. They said to the people, “The Land that we passed through, to spy it out, - the Land is very, very good! If G-d desires us, He will bring us to this Land and give it to us, a Land that flows with milk and honey. But do not rebel against G-d! You should not fear the people of the Land, for they are our bread. Their protection has departed from them; G-d is with us. Do not fear them!” (ibid. 14:7-9).
The expression that Joshua and Caleb used to describe the giant and scary inhabitants of the Land of Canaan is quite interesting – “for they are our bread”.
What did they mean by referring to their enemies as “bread”?
Rash”i, the preeminent Bible commentator, explains that Joshua and Caleb were telling the Jewish people not to be scared because they would ‘eat’ the bad guys like bread. Sforno (16th century Italian commentator) adds that just as when one eats bread, the bread offers no resistance, so would the Jews easily overpower their enemies. [This is somewhat similar to the popular idiom used today when a person feels he can easily defeat his opponent, as in: “I eat guys like you for breakfast”.]
I would like to suggest a different understanding of Joshua and Caleb’s strange choice of words, based on the commentary of the saintly Chassidic Rebbe of Gur, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847–1905), better known by the title of his main work, the Sfas Emes.
But in order to understand what the Sfas Emes says, we need to go back to the basics – Creation 101 – and to ask ourselves why G-d created this world in the first place.
The Kabbalists explain that since G-d is perfect and infinite, he has no need for a universe, and He therefore had nothing to gain from creating mankind. Rather, G-d created the universe as an act of love. Since G-d is good, He wanted to give that good to others. He thus created the world basically as a vehicle upon which He could bestow His good. But G-d’s love is so great that any good that He bestows must be in the greatest good possible. Anything less would simply not be enough. But what is the greatest good? What is the ultimate good that G-d can bestow on His creation? The greatest good that He can bestow on others is Himself. There is no greater good than achieving a degree of unity with the Creator Himself.
Where then is the place that G-d’s creations, all of us, will receive this ‘greatest good’? Certainly not in this world! After all, there is so much that is not good in this world that it simply can’t be that this world is all there is.
As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) writes in his classic work of Jewish ethics, Path of the Just (Chap. 1): “And in truth, no reasoning being can believe that the purpose of man's creation relates to his station in this world. For what is a man's life in this world! Who is truly happy and content in this world? "The days of our life are seventy years, and, if exceedingly vigorous, eighty years, and their persistence is but labor and foolishness" (Psalms 90:10). How many different kinds of suffering, and sicknesses, and pains and burdens! And after all this - death! Not one in a thousand is to be found to whom the world has yielded a superabundance of gratifications and true contentment. And even such a one, though he attain to the age of one hundred years, passes and vanishes from the world.”
The Kabbalists explain that the place where we will receive that ultimate good is not in Olam HaZeh, this (physical) world, but rather in a different level of existence following this one called Olam HaBa, the “World to Come”. There we will achieve a degree of unity with G-d and partake of His essence, which is the greatest good.
This begs the obvious question – so why then did G-d bother creating this world? Why couldn’t He place us right away in the World to Come where we could then be the recipients of the greatest good that is G-d Himself?
The answer to this has to do with a concept that the Zohar and the Kabbalists refer to as Nahama D’Kisufa, lit. “Bread of Shame”. Simply put, this means that when a poor person receives a free piece of bread, he feels embarrassed and ashamed, since he did nothing to ‘deserve’ it. Getting something we did not earn doesn’t make us feel very good about ourselves. We even have a hard time looking our benefactor in the face. So if G-d were to reward us right away with the ‘bread’ of the World to Come, we would never truly enjoy that good, nor would we be able to achieve true unity with Him.
Thus, rather than handing out a free reward, G-d created Olam HaZeh, this world, as a ‘testing ground’ – a place where we would be tested with all kinds of temptations and struggles throughout our lives. We can choose to draw close to G-d by following His commandments and passing those tests, or we can decide to follow our own temptations and distance ourselves from G-d. This way, by making good choices in this world, we each have the opportunity of ‘earning’ the reward of the greatest good that we will receive in the next world.
As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto writes in Path of the Just (ibid.): “It is seen, then, that man is veritably placed in the midst of a raging battle. For all the affairs of the world, whether for the good or for the bad, are trials to a man: Poverty on the one hand and wealth on the other, as Solomon said (Proverbs 30:9), "Lest I become satiated and deny, saying, ‘Who is G-d?' or lest I become impoverished and steal..." Serenity on the one hand and suffering on the other; so that the battle rages against him to the fore and to the rear”
It emerges that the entire purpose for our being placed in Olam HaZeh – and without which there would be no need for this world at all – is to be tested and challenged and to try our best to overcome those challenges so as to prepare ourselves for our ultimate reward in Olam HaBa. As the Mishnah teaches us in Pirkei Avos (4:21): “This world is like a lobby before the World to Come; prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall”.
We can now understand what Joshua and Caleb were telling the Jewish people after they had been discouraged by the other ten spies and lost their faith in their ability to conquer the Land of Canaan. They were saying to their brethren, “Don’t be afraid of those giants! Don’t shy away from this challenge! After all, those scary-looking people are our bread! Just like we need to eat bread in order to physically survive, we need this test and others in order to spiritually survive! Without tests like these, we would not have been put here in this world in the first place! The tests that G-d sends our way are the very bread that keeps us alive!”
Furthermore, explains the Sfas Emes, Joshua and Caleb were telling the Jewish people that those scary-looking giants in the Land of Canaan who are testing our faith are our bread. In other words, without being tested in this world and overcoming those tests, when we come to the Next World, we will be embarrassed to receive the ‘bread’ reward that G-d will give us because we will not have earned it. Only by overcoming this test and the many other challenges that G-d sends our way throughout our lives, will we be able to enjoy our ultimate reward in the World to Come, because it will be our bread.
May G-d bless all of us that we have the courage, strength, wisdom and foresight to overcome the many tests of this temporary world, so that we can one day truly enjoy the greatest good in the eternity that is the World to Come. Amen.