Parshat Shlach – Making Activism “Jewish”
The world is topsy-turvy right now, to say the least. Folks who never might have seen themselves as “activists” in the past are protesting and demanding change in a way that we haven’t seen in generations. I propose that this week, Parshat Shelach teaches us how to make that activism, whatever form it takes, distinctly “Jewish.”
Parshat Shelach opens with a description of the spies sent by Moshe to scout out the land of Israel in anticipation of the pre-ordained entry of the Jewish people to their promised land. Surprisingly, most of the twelve spies return with a frightening report of a “land which consumes its inhabitants” and attempt to discourage the nation from entering. They say that even God would be unable to conquer the land! These twelve spies were all leaders of the community who had witnessed countless miracles from Egypt to the desert. Where was this sudden doubt in God’s abilities coming from? Their reaction doesn’t seem to make sense.
Chassidic thought teaches that the spiritual level of the Jews in the desert was very high; they were known as a “generation of knowledge” of God and spiritual mysteries. After years of experiencing God’s power in the desert the spies were on a highly meditative level of spirituality, described in the Zohar as the “world of thought.” Every need of the Jewish people was cared for miraculously – food, drink, clothing – all supplied by God. They had no reason to be invested in the material world. The Zohar teaches that the land of Israel was part of the “world of speech,” a relatively lower level where physical reality pervades.
For the spies, entering Israel meant a shift from living in a world of revealed Godliness to a world where God’s presence would be more concealed, and they interpreted this shift as a spiritual descent. They feared that once the Jewish people would have to account for their own material needs, engaging meaningfully in the physical world, they would not be able to sustain their connection to God and would face spiritual death in the promised land.
What the spies forgot was that the Torah teaches us that the Jewish people needed to enter Israel in order “to do in the land.” Torah could only exist as theoretical for so long – it needed to be physically manifested by us living it out in the real world. We needed to construct a society based on Torah and its values!
Herein lay the critical mistake of the spies; given the choice between spiritual bliss and disconnection from all physicality on the one hand, or getting their hands dirty with mitzvot in the physical world on the other, they preferred to remain in a state of spiritual bliss. After all, why risk our high level of spirituality by attempting to engage with the physical?
As Jews trying to repair this broken world, I think our lesson is clear. The spies’ drive toward complete spiritual bliss was pure and idealistic, but misplaced. God made clear that the role of the Jewish people is to repair the world through revealing its Godly potential even at the lowest physical levels. Our task is to make a dwelling place for God by working to effect a more perfect world. May we all succeed in manifesting our spiritual ideals as meaningful change in our local and global worlds.
Questions for the Shabbat Table:
- Have you found that at times it is easier to think about things than to take action? How do you motivate yourself to get up and take action?
- What are ways that your Judaism motivates your work repairing the world?