By Daniel Nakonechny
Some years ago a friend shared with me a story that Shlomo Carlebach had told about himself. Shlomo related that there was a young man whom he had succeeded in encouraging to return to his Jewish roots. As this young man became more involved with Judaism, he began keeping Shabbos regularly. One Shabbos he found himself in a city where he didn’t know anyone, so he went to shule (synagogue) and after davening (services) he was able to find someone who offered him Shabbos hospitality. In the course of conversation during the meal, his host asked what had made him become religious. The young man answered that “it was because of Shlomo Carlebach’s influence.”
Upon hearing Shlomo’s name, the host cried, “What, that meshuganeh (Yid: crazy person)!”, and then he began to ridicule and denigrate Shlomo. So withering was his disparagement that in its aftermath the young man lost all heart and gave up Judaism for good.
I’ve never heard another story that, to me, so succinctly and accurately explains what exactly it was that the m’raglim (the spies) did so wrong. But there is more to the story of the m’raglim, and it is only with the deepest kind of understanding that we can reach the truth.
As we enter this week’s parsha, Sh’lach L’cha, our faces are turned and our hearts are poised to receive our long awaited and even longer promised homeland, the ‘Promised Land’ - Eretz Yisrael. As we depart the parsha, we are hanging onto a thread – literally. Despite the seeming absurdity, we must ask, “what connects the magnificence of the ‘Promised Land’ - Eretz Yisrael to that miniscule strand of thread, the thread that we know as ‘t’chelet’, the unique blue thread in the mitzvah of ‘tzitzit’ (fringes)?”
In order to answer, I am first going to highlight the pivotal points of the entire episode, because it will allow us to more easily focus on the essence of what occurred. (Understand, of course, that each word in the parsha offers critical insight into what transpired, and the substance is significant and must be learned. We just can’t do it here and now.)
It isn’t difficult to step into the shoes of the m’raglim and understand them, after all they carried a tremendous responsibility. The burden of entering and conquering the ‘Promised Land’ – Eretz Yisrael was going to fall upon them, our leaders. The obligations to motivate and direct us, to lead and to carry us forward would be directly related to how they perceived our readiness. Consequently, when they reported their findings and conclusions stating that “we were not capable”, they were speaking in the light of this responsibility and on behalf of all the upper echelons. That is why that when they finished their iteration of events and their evaluation no one uttered a word.
Well, almost no one. Of every single person who was present, including Moshe and Aaron, Calev ben Y’funeh was the single person who rose to challenge the understanding of the m’raglim. Expecting his compliance because he had been with them, the m’raglim had quieted us in order to allow his words to carry. In utter simplicity he challenged them exclaiming, “If we go up, we’ll inherit it. He is capable; we are capable.”
And thus the scene was set. Before us were ten of the m’raglim, ten esteemed leaders, holding one opinion, “No way!” and a solitary figure, Calev ben Y’funeh, another, “Forward, it’s ours!”
What should we have done? How should we have reacted?
What we should have done should have been obvious to us. Our entire history had bred us for this unique moment. After enduring exile, bondage, emancipation, and finally the freedom to pursue our destiny and then pursuing it, we now stood literally upon the threshold of the gateway to fulfilling our dream. We should have commenced our journey home, walking over the m’raglim as we surged forward.
No one moved. No one even spoke. No one.
Seeing our hesitation and sensing our predicament, ten m’raglim opened their mouths in unison to persuade us. “We’re not capable. The inhabitants are more powerful than Him”, and then they began belittling and denigrating the ‘Promised Land’ – Eretz Yisrael.
In disbelief, Yehoshua ben Nun and Calev ben Y’funeh were stunned by how the m’raglim’s litany of disparagement was decimating our hopes and desires. Reeling in shock, Yehoshua and Calev cried out, “The land that we investigated is exceedingly, exceedingly good. If the Holy One desires us, He’ll bring us to the land and give us it, a land that is flowing with milk and honey. Don’t rebel against God! We’ll devour them; God is with us all the way.”
It was too little and too late. Our ears were deaf and our hearts were numb. We attempted to stone Yehoshua and Calev, which Divine intervention prevented, and then we fell into bitter lamenting and weeping over our ‘fate’. In doing so we sealed our fate. The ten m’raglim would die immediately, and we, the adults, would end our lives in the desert without even once getting a whiff of the fragrance of the ‘Promised Land’ – Eretz Yisrael.
This, in its brevity, is a summary of the highlights of what transpired. Now let’s look more closely.
Apparently, to achieve understanding we must examine Calev. What did Calev, alone, see that no one else saw? What gave him the impetus and courage to stand up against the m’raglim, to be the solitary figure determined to provide the momentum that would move us forward?
From the beginning, there was united agreement on the exceptional quality of the ‘Promised Land’ – Eretz Yisrael. The m’raglim were absolutely correct in their evaluation and assessment of the ‘Promised Land’ – Eretz Yisrael, including that both the land, itself, and its inhabitants were formidable. The disagreement occurred in determining whether we were actually capable of achieving what we were going to attempt. In their penetrating analysis and understanding of what we were capable of, the m’raglim accurately predicted that “we weren’t capable”. The proof to this is that in the aftermath of events we tried to do it and failed.
Contrastingly, what Calev uniquely understood is that it wasn’t dependent upon us, at least not solely. He cried, “If we go up, we’ll inherit it. He is capable; we are capable.” That ‘He’ is God. Unlike the m’raglim who first looked at the people, Calev first looked at God. So seemingly simple and so seemingly obvious, yet Calev alone thought of it! Why? From where?
In their travels throughout the ‘Promised Land’ – Eretz Yisrael, among all the many places that the m’raglim explored only one is mentioned by name, Hevron. It is mentioned because Hevron is the burial place of our forefathers, and of all the m’raglim it was only Calev who went to daven at the tombs of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov. At the feet of our forefathers, Calev cried, “Tell me what it’s all about? Tell me what’s the secret of the ‘Promised Land’, of Eretz Yisrael?” And they did.
When Calev stood up before the people, he wasn’t challenging the m’raglim’s assessment regarding the people. That he could agree with. What he was challenging was their assessment of what causes us to acquire the ‘Promised Land’ – Eretz Yisrael. Very explicitly, he told the people, “If we go up, we’ll inherit it. He is capable; we are capable.”
He deliberately and unequivocally laid it in front of us. “That’s what our forefathers told me, ‘it’s all coming from God. Believe!’” Calev had learned from Avraham and Yitzhak and Ya’akov that the gateway to the ‘Promised Land’, to Eretz Yisrael, is belief, the simple belief that God is giving it to us, and because it is a gift the reality then is that it has absolutely nothing to do with whether we are capable or not. The ‘Promised Land’ - Eretz Yisrael is a gift, a genuine gift.
That it could only be a gift given to us purely for the sake of giving exceeded the m’raglim, who could only understand it as achievement, something that must be earned and hence deserved. It was in light of this understanding that the m’raglim countered Calev. If what Calev is saying is true, then we can say whatever we want about the ‘Promised Land’, about Eretz Yisrael, and it won’t make any difference. You’ll go because you believe that it’s a gift. What the m’raglim didn’t realize is that in their withering denigration of the ‘Promised Land’ – Eretz Yisrael they destroyed our belief - not our belief in God – but our belief in what God is giving us.
Belatedly, Yehoshua and Calev tried desperately to overcome this devastation. They didn’t fight against the m’raglim, countering word with word, blow with blow. Instead, they went deep, so very deep to find the words and truths that would release the people from the grip of the m’raglim. Every word they spoke was truth of the purest and sweetest kind, which in the midst of it all they extolled, “…tovah ha’aretz m’ode, m’ode.” Good [is] the land – exceedingly, exceedingly [so]. What did they mean?
We know that when the six days of creation were completed, the Torah says, “Vayar Elokim et-cal-asher awsah, v’henei tov m’ode…” and God saw all that He [had] made, and behold it was exceedingly good… At the end of creating, amidst the solitude of creation God describes all of creation as being ‘exceedingly good’. Yehoshua and Calev, in solitude and silence before a disbelieving, dispirited, and crushed audience describe the ‘Promised Land’ - Eretz Yisrael as Good [is] the land – exceedingly, exceedingly [so]. Creation is ‘exceedingly’, and the ‘Promised Land’ - Eretz Yisrael, is ‘exceedingly, exceedingly’.
Sadly, however, there are times when even the deepest truths are insufficient. The damage that the m’raglim had inflicted was to destroy our belief in what the Holy One, Blessed be He, was giving us, the ‘Promised Land’ - Eretz Yisrael. On the weight of the words of these ten men – ten chosen and proven righteous leaders of our people – a dream was destroyed, a dream that had been in the building since Avraham Aveinu, our first forefather, accepted upon himself a decision to follow a Divine request.
But how could it be that these ten men – ten chosen and proven righteous leaders of our people – could prove to be so mistaken? How could it be that they failed to grasp what Yehoshua and Calev both comprehended? The answer is that they failed to see. Obviously they did see, it’s just that they were incapable of seeing that which can’t be seen, that which is imperceptive to the limitations of our ability to understand. They were only capable of seeing as far as their knowledge and intelligence could take them. What lay beyond lay beyond and they couldn’t ‘see it’, and hence they couldn’t know it.
Yehoshua and Calev had learned that God demands that we reach past [our] knowledge and embrace belief. In doing so, Yehoshua and Calev saw that the ‘Promised Land’ - Eretz Yisrael, is ‘exceedingly, exceedingly’. ‘Exceedingly, exceedingly’ means that the ‘Promised Land’ - Eretz Yisrael is exceptional quantities of very radiant and Holy light, light which requires belief in order to be able to see it.
The failure of the m’raglim and us is that we weren’t capable of seeing that light, and in consequence we weren’t capable of doing what was needed to enter the ‘Promised Land’ - Eretz Yisrael. Had we been able and done so it would have allowed us to wrap ourselves in light, because just as a fish needs to be entirely immersed in water and a land animal needs to be entirely surrounded by air, so does a precious Jewish neshamah need to be entirely clothed in light. That light is the Holy light of the ‘Promised Land’ - Eretz Yisrael.
In remedy to our failure to enter ‘Promised Land’ - Eretz Yisrael, we were given the mitzvah of tzitzit, i.e. on the corners of our garments we tie fringes of white and ‘t’chelet’ [blue]. To learn the mitzvah of ‘tzitzit’ is to learn what doing a mitzvah is; to learn what the essence of a mitzvah as a mitzvah is all about.
The saintly Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim, in his commentary on the Torah (Cli Yakar), says that the single thread of ‘t’chelet’, that single blue fringe, comes to teach us that this one simple strand is by itself a sufficient garment capable of wrapping us in the deepest and most magnificent of Holy light. The saintly Rebbe Aaron of Karlin (the grandson) says the uniqueness of the mitzvah of tzitzit is that it comes to teach us how to ‘see’, as it says in the pasuk (sentence) “…u’r’eetem ohtoe” - and you shall see Him (masculine pronoun [for God], not the feminine pronoun for tzitzit). >From this one fragile strand of ‘t’chelet’, we are capable of seeing how we are encompassed by God’s unending being - His infinite light and love.
In Shabbos and Yom Tov davening, at the end of Pirkei d’Zimrah we conclude with ‘Nishamat cal Chay…”, a prayer that is uniquely recited only on Shabbos and Yom Tov (and Seder Night). In the middle of it we say, “…[we] sing praises only to You [HaShem]. If our mouths were oceans filled with song, our tongues as incessant and unending as waves, our lips as praising as the expanses of the heavens, our eyes as luminous as the sun and the moon, our hands as outspread as the wings of eagles, and our feet as fleet as the fleetest of deer, we would be totally incapable of thanking You….and blessing Your name… for merely ONE of the [an astronomical number] acts of kindness that You did for us and our ancestors.”
Literally, one single drop from God’s oceans of chesed (kindness) absolutely exceeds our ability to express our gratitude. No single one of us in his or her entire lifetime is capable of thanking God for even the seemingly most insignificant act of kindness that God has done.
That’s what the mitzvah of ‘t’chelet’, of tzitzit, comes to teach. By merely looking at one tiny blue thread that is held up against the background of all creation, we are dwarfed by the proportions. On the one hand, the proportion that it seems so totally and absurdly insignificant in comparison, and on the other the proportion that in reality a complete lifetime is insufficient to express our gratitude for even ‘this amount’ of kindness. It’s all a gift! Believe!