In this week’s parsha Bnei Yisrael decamp from Mount Sinai, the place of Torah revelation, and begin their journey to the Land of Israel in earnest.
במדבר פרק י פסוק לג
ויסעו מהר יקוק דרך שלשת ימים וארון ברית יקוק נסע לפניהם דרך שלשת ימים לתור להם מנוחה:
“They traveled from the mountain of Ha-Shem three day’s journey, and the Ark of the Covenant of Ha-Shem traveled before them three day’s journey to scout for them a resting-place.” It’s a momentous event. In the midrash Sifrei Zuta it says:
ספרי זוטא פרק י פסוק לג
(לג). ויסעו מהר י”י דרך שלשת ימים, וכי דרך שלשת ימים היה והלא כבר נאמר אחד עשר יום מחורב (דברים א ב) מה אני מקיים דרך שלשת ימים אלא מלמד שהילכו באותו היום כדרך שהיו מהלכין בשלשת ימים שבכל יום היו מהלכין שנים עשר מיל ואותו היום הילכו שלשים וששה מיל. היה ר’ שמעון אומר בוא וראה חיבתה של א”י כמה היא חביבה שכל מי שהוא הולך למלחמה הרי הוא רץ והולך כשהוא מגיע למלחמה הרי רגליו משתברות אבל ישר’ אינן כן אלא כשהיו קרובים לא”י היו רגליהם נושאות אותן…
“They traveled from the mountain of Ha-Shem three day’s journey… It teaches that they walked on that day as much as they could walk in three days, for each day they usually walked twelve miles but on that day they walked thirty-six miles. Rabbi Shimon says ‘come and see how cherished is the Land of Israel, for all those who go to war run, but when they get to the war their legs fail them. But Israel is not like that, rather, when they drew near to the Land of Isrel their legs lifted them…”
Even though Bnei Yisrael knew that their journey to Israel would present challenges and struggles of all kinds, they ran with enthusiasm. We, too, feel the excitement expressed in this week’s parsha as we prepare for our Aliyah this week, be-Ezrat Ha-Shem, knowing full well there are challenges ahead.
As it happens, while this Shabbat’s Torah portion for the Diaspora is Be-ha’alotka, the parsha of promise, in Israel parshat Shelach is read – the parsha of the Meraglim, the parsha of the failure to make Aliyah. So it turns out for us, making Aliyah this week, our journey is framed by parshat Shelach this Shabbat in Israel, and parshat Shelach next Shabbat in the Diaspora, and we ourselves never get to hear parshat Shelach – we’ll have to catch it up on our own. I don’t like to project personal narratives onto such occurrences and pretend there is some kind of “siman” here. But we find it noteworthy that for us, parshat Shelach is “under erasure” as the Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida would say. Its absence becomes a transfigured presence. Have we learned the lessons of that initial failure of the Jewish people to fulfill their destiny at the first opportunity, the lessons they learned to strengthen themselves for forty years so they could try again? We, too, had an opportunity to make Aliyah forty years ago, and instead spent these years outside the Land, trying to prepare ourselves and strengthen ourselves for this opportunity. Have we learned yet?
Emmanuel Levinas has a beautiful read of the climactic moment of parshat Shelach, from the Gemara Sotah. Kalev tries to rally the people to take up their destiny to enter the Land with courage and trust in Ha-Shem.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוטה דף לה עמוד א
אמר להן: וכי זו בלבד עשה לנו בן עמרם? סברי בגנותיה קא משתעי, אישתיקו, אמר להו: הוציאנו ממצרים וקרע לנו את הים והאכילנו את המן, אם יאמר עשו סולמות ועלו לרקיע לא נשמע לו? עלה נעלה וירשנו אותה וגו’
“He said to them: is this all that Ben Amram did for us? [The people] thought he was going to speak disparagingly of Moshe and became quiet. He said to them: he brought us out of Egypt and split the Sea for us and brought the Manna to feed us. If he were to say ‘make ladders and ascend to Heaven’ shouldn’t we listen to him? ‘Up, let us go up and inherit it (Num. 13:30).’”
The Gemara reads Kalev’s emphatic double-exhortation to “up, let us go up” as what seems to be a rhetorical flourish – even if Moshe were to tell us to make ladders to Heaven we should listen to him. Levinas reads this not as a mere hypothetical, but as the actual mission of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. This really is the meaning of the mitzvah of Yishuv Ha-Aretz – dwelling in the Land of Israel. Our mission really is to cultivate a society of justice and compassion guided by Torah, a heavenly existence that is the highest human destiny and a model for all humanity. Our dwelling in the Land is conditional: our connection with the Land of Israel is not a guaranteed right, but a privilege conditional working to fulfill this mission.
As Anne and I prepare for our Aliyah flight, be-Ezrat Ha-Shem, we are very conscious of this privilege of Aliyah, of the challenges and the responsibilities, of the conditionality and the mission. We are skipping parshat Shelach – perhaps the lessons and the Tikkun are within us. We can’t claim to be worthy, but we hope we have gathered the skills to contribute and do our part to build some ladders to Heaven, working with good-hearted people to Build and be Built in the Land of Israel.