Upstart Nation

Parashat Shelach – 5781

Meir Sendor

This week’s parashah has special meaning for us. It was the parashah we missed when we made Aliyah five years ago. The week we landed in Israel, the Shabbat Torah reading in the Diaspora was to be Shelach, but Israel was already ahead, reading parashat Korach. So we skipped the parashah in which Am Yisrael had a failure of nerve and lost the opportunity to make Aliyah, until the next generation, thirty-eight years later, was ready to enter the Land. We saw this as an expression of tikkun, to experience the privilege of Aliyah, for ourselves and on behalf of our family, our ancestors and our descendants, be-ezrat HaShem.

In this week’s parashah, despite the best efforts of Moshe Rabbenu, Yehoshua and Kalev, despite HaShem’s own Will that they enter the Land, the Israelites hang back and don’t get the job done. Yehoshua, one of the greatest heroes of the Tana”kh, succeeds in bringing the nation into the Land, but even he does not finish the work. After the list of all the Canaanite nations and their kings that Israel vanquished, HaShem chides Yehoshua a bit:


 יהושע פרק יג:א

וִיהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ זָקֵ֔ן בָּ֖א בַּיָּמִ֑ים וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְקֹוָ֜ק אֵלָ֗יו אַתָּ֤ה זָקַ֙נְתָּה֙ בָּ֣אתָ בַיָּמִ֔ים וְהָאָ֛רֶץ נִשְׁאֲרָ֥ה הַרְבֵּֽה־ מְאֹ֖ד לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ:


Joshua 13:1

And Yehoshua was elderly, advanced in days, and HaShem said to him “you have become old, advanced in days, and of the Land there remains much to inherit.”

There follows a list of all the tribes and places that had yet to be conquered. At the end of the passage it says:


  יהושע פרק יג:יג

וְלֹ֤א הוֹרִ֙ישׁוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־הַגְּשׁוּרִ֖י וְאֶת־הַמַּעֲכָתִ֑י וַיֵּ֨שֶׁב גְּשׁ֤וּר וּמַֽעֲכָת֙ בְּקֶ֣רֶב יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה:


Joshua 13:13

But the Children of Israel did not expel the Geshuri nor the Ma’akhati, so Geshur and Ma’akhat dwell in the midst of Israel until this day.

Even King David is faulted in the midrash halakhah for conquering territory outside the Land of Israel before securing the Land fully – leaving the Canaanite Yevusi tribe near Jerusalem (Sifrei, Ekev, sec. 51).

HaShem’s insistence that Israel take full possession of the Land was not just an issue of national pride. It had a spiritual and a realpolitik dimension, as He says to Moshe Rabbenu:


במדבר פרק לג

(נא) דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֲלֵהֶ֑ם כִּ֥י אַתֶּ֛ם עֹבְרִ֥ים אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֖ן אֶל־אֶ֥רֶץ כְּנָֽעַן:

 וְה֨וֹרַשְׁתֶּ֜ם אֶת־כָּל־יֹשְׁבֵ֤י הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ מִפְּנֵיכֶ֔ם וְאִ֨בַּדְתֶּ֔ם אֵ֖ת כָּל־מַשְׂכִּיֹּתָ֑ם וְאֵ֨ת כָּל־צַלְמֵ֤י מַסֵּֽכֹתָם֙ תְּאַבֵּ֔דוּ וְאֵ֥ת כָּל־בָּמוֹתָ֖ם תַּשְׁמִֽידוּ:

 וְהוֹרַשְׁתֶּ֥ם אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וִֽישַׁבְתֶּם־בָּ֑הּ כִּ֥י לָכֶ֛ם נָתַ֥תִּי אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ לָרֶ֥שֶׁת אֹתָֽהּ:

 וְאִם־לֹ֨א תוֹרִ֜ישׁוּ אֶת־יֹשְׁבֵ֣י הָאָרֶץ֘ מִפְּנֵיכֶם֒ וְהָיָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תּוֹתִ֣ירוּ מֵהֶ֔ם לְשִׂכִּים֙ בְּעֵ֣ינֵיכֶ֔ם וְלִצְנִינִ֖ם בְּצִדֵּיכֶ֑ם וְצָרֲר֣וּ אֶתְכֶ֔ם עַל־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתֶּ֖ם יֹשְׁבִ֥ים בָּֽהּ:


Num. 33:51-55

Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: when you pass over the Jordan to the Land of Canaan –  you shall expel all the inhabitants of the Land before you, and destroy their votive pavements and their molten images you shall destroy, and their altars you shall smash. And you shall dispossess the inhabitants of the Land and you shall dwell in it, for to you I have given the Land to inherit it… But if you do not expel the inhabitants of the Land from before you, then those of them who you allow to remain shall be as thorns in your eyes and nettles in your sides, and they will vex you upon the Land in which you dwell.

And so it was. The idolatrous Canaanite nations that remained in the Land, and others such as the Pelishtim that joined them, continued to harass the Israelites throughout the period of the Judges, and lure many to their idolatrous practices. And so has it been in our day. After our victories in 1948 and 1967, due to a combination of compassion and international pressure, we allowed the Jordanian population, who had hoped for our destruction at the hands of the combined Arab armies, to remain in the Land and in control of the Temple Mount. While for the most part there has been mutual accommodation and a spirit of cooperation and even friendship between many Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, including some Arabs living in the territories, other Arab groups in Gaza and the territories have repaid us with religious and ethnic intolerance, violence, outbreaks of terrorism and war ever since.

Several times in the Torah we are commanded and warned to take complete possession of the Land of Israel, and though we have suffered for not following through fully, there are social and political realities that temper ideals, from this week’s parashah and on.

In a wise and prescient essay entitled “The Soul of Nationhood and its Body,” Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook addresses the thesis that “there must necessarily be a gap between the abstract ideal of a universal goal – and its expression in actuality; between the good intention that shines for a person in the high heights of his spiritual life – and the spirit that always accompanies him to guide his actions and his behavior (Orot, p. 132 ff).” He shows that the struggle between the ideal and the real is not just an inconvenient fact of life, it has educational and spiritual value. He notes that on the one hand, ideals are not meant to remain ineffectually detached from reality:

Inconceivably beautiful is the ideal of establishing a treasured people, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, out of a people sunk in frightful slavery, the brilliance of whose ancestral origin illuminates its darkness. In the divine heights this ideal abides in hidden purity. But it must be materialized, wrapped in a specific boundary, among people with inclinations good and bad, in communities in need of livelihood and sustenance, to gain a foothold in the land and government authority. Collective life needs to include everyone, from the peaks of the pure of spirit and refined souls to the lowlands of lesser souls who are bound to engage in the lower sides of existence.

In the process of realization an ideal may lose its purity, but it can have broader positive impact on a wider range of people. On the other hand, Rav Kook observes that when ideals enter the practical world they inevitably get distorted and diminished. So it’s necessary to keep checking the actual results against their ideal ethical and spiritual intent and make corrections. It’s a constant back-and-forth process, in the course of which ideals become clarified, practical results are perfected, and we learn more and more about ourselves for deeper and deeper tikkun.

It would have been ideal for the Israelites to have trusted God fully and entered the Land of Israel in the second year of their escape from Egypt, but they were clearly not ready. On the practical level they needed to toughen up in the wilderness, face and overcome a series of challenges and learn to work together and really trust God, not just in their thoughts but deep in their hearts, their bodies, their guts. It would have been ideal had Yehoshua and the people succeeded in establishing the full nation of Israel on the full Land of Israel and not be subjected to the continual harassments of the remaining predatory Canaanite tribes. But in the practical process of defense they learned more about themselves and their commitment to HaShem and His Torah, and a loose federation of tribes became a cohesive nation. It would have been ideal had we succeeded in securing the Land of Israel fully in 1948 and 1967, and not be left with a hostile population in our heartland and implacable enemies in Gaza. The practical lesson that should come from this ultimate puzzle is how to transform enemies into friends while maintaining our integrity. It’s the lesson that all humanity needs, to turn competing, alienated nations into a cooperative, cohesive planet. But we’re not there yet. The messy process of our history is teaching us deep lessons about the Torah ideals at the core of our nation, and how to actualize them in this complicated world.

The Aliyah of the Israelite nation to the Land of Israel, beginning with our father Avraham and mother Sarah, was never just about creating a nation that learns Torah and practices mitzvot in a safely sealed-off ghetto, whether in Poland or Bnei Brak. It is about a grand divine experiment to create an ethically sensitive and spiritually aware nation that can engage all of humanity and bring Aliyah, Elevation, to us all.






Yet there are political realities that temper ideals

Rav Kook essay re ideal and real need to be continually correlated. Tikkun is a process. Each step needs to be well-founded. Rambam and evolution. R Kook on evolution.

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