Historian Arnold Toynbee believed that history is cyclical and that the lives of many world leaders are characterized by patterns of “withdrawal and return.” For example, Moses went through a period of withdrawal in the desert of Midian and returned to Egypt to lead his people out of slavery.
In this week’s portion, a pattern is laid down that, tragically, has been repeated all too frequently in the history of our people, whereby a major portion of the Jewish leadership opposes entering the Land of Israel.
This week, we read of the 12 spies, whose mission was to explore the Promised Land and assess its inhabitants and terrain in preparation for entering the land, conquering it, and settling it.
But 10 returned discouraged, saying, “We are not able to go up against the people; they are stronger than we.” Only two, Joshua and Caleb, had the courage to say, “We should go up at once, and possess it, for we are well able to overcome it.” (Numbers 13:30)
The event sets a recurring pattern where heroic visionaries like Joshua and Caleb not only commit to entering the land but inspire others to do so. The other part of the pattern is those leaders who are too cowardly, cautious, or blind to lead their people to enter and possess the Holy Land.
During the Babylonian exile, only unique individuals like Ezra and Nehemiah were made of the same stuff as Joshua and Caleb. And only a small remnant of the exile followed them and returned to the Land.
Over the ensuing centuries history repeated itself. Every so often, a pitifully small group of Jews followed the path advocated by Joshua and Caleb to return to the Land. The vast majority, sometimes for practical, sometimes ideological reasons, remained in the Diaspora, following the path of the other 10 spies.
We live in an age when the ideal of return to Zion is beset by challenges from all sides — when the liberal intellectual community, including many Jews, no longer accepts the ideal of a Jewish homeland for the Jewish people. Some in that community are willing to see the Holy Land shared by another people. There are others who totally delegitimize the notion of a return to Zion.
More troubling, however, are those of the religious community who are antagonistic to the enterprise of the Jewish people living as a sovereign nation in the land promised to us by the Almighty. There are legitimate ideological views for or against religious Zionism, and I am aware of the faults and flaws of the government of the State of Israel.
But how can anyone reading this week’s parsha fail to be impressed by its central messages: We left Egypt with a promise to inherit a “land flowing with milk and honey.” We had the opportunity to enter that land soon after the Exodus. We failed to appreciate the opportunity and — it was postponed for 40 years.
The Shlach narrative establishes a tragic pattern repeated too often during our history: the conflict between foresight and fear, courage and cowardice, true and weaker faith — an eternal theme down to this very day.