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Torah Commentary
Sh'lach L'cha (June 13, 2015)

Prince H. Davis, Administrative Assistant

IN PARASHAT SH’LACH L’CHA, if one analyzes the back and forth between the 10 spies, on the one hand, and Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, then a remarkable — if easily overlooked — insight emerges.

The spies’ negative report about the Land of Israel contains a number of points: The inhabitants of the Land are giants, they are powerful, and their cities are huge and fortified. In other words, we cannot conquer them because they are too powerful (B’midbar 13:28). Joshua and Caleb famously reject this assertion, but upon careful examination, it is not clear what about the report they dispute. “Let us by all means go up,” Caleb declares, “for we shall surely overcome it.” (B’midbar 13:30) Impressive, no doubt, and certainly inspirational, but what substantive argument is made? “We shall overcome it” is a slogan not a response.

The spies make several observations about why they think it isn’t possible to enter the Land, and none of them is contradicted or even debated. All we seem to have is “pie in sky” optimism. How are we to understand this response? Isn’t there a rationale that Joshua and Caleb can give for why they think the Jews should and can enter the Land? And more significant, in light of the “non-response,” how can the Jewish people be blamed or punished for following the advice of the 10 spies?

Rabbi Kalonymous Kalmish Shapiro was the last Chasidic Rebbe in the Warsaw Ghetto. His leadership — until his murder by the Nazis — was the stuff of legend, and many of his teachings from that period have come down to us through a notebook of collected speeches, titled Esh Kodesh, which remained buried until it was discovered years after the Holocaust. One such teaching is a sermon delivered on June 22, 1940, on Parashat Sh’lach in which Rabbi Shapiro discusses the questions we ask above. Rather than seeing Caleb’s reply as evasive, he suggests that it contains not only an answer to the spies but, more important, a timeless expression of faith.

Rabbi Shapiro explains that while there are arguments Caleb could have made — a point-by-point rebuttal of sorts — he choses, rather, to appeal to the reservoir of faith that the Jewish people should have possessed. Even assuming the validity of everything the spies said, there still is no reason for the people to doubt their ability to conquer the Land of Israel.

After all, continues Rabbi Shapiro, “This is the faith that is required of Jews. Even when we don’t see any logical or natural avenue for salvation, we must believe that God, who is above the limits of nature, will save us.”

In other words, the Jews aren’t being asked to go at it alone; they are being asked to trust in God’s promise that He will deliver the Land to them. And nothing the spies say contradicts that reality, as neither the size nor the strength of the Land’s inhabitants would pose a challenge to God’s might. That is the crux of Caleb’s response to the spies. Aloh na’aleh — Let us by all means go up, and we surely will triumph so long as we maintain our faith in God. Rather than being evasive, this is an appropriate and perfectly placed response to the charge of the spies. God has promised that they will conquer the Land, and the spies’ arguments, therefore, clearly express a flawed and limited faith. If God says that the Jewish people will conquer the Land, then why does it matter how strong or how many soldiers the other nations have? Given that the underlying source of their argument is a lack of faith, Caleb responds by calling on the people to recall and affirm their faith.

Even more striking than this insight into the biblical text are the circumstances under which it is said. It’s one thing to reflect this level of faith in a calm and safe environment; it’s quite another to demonstrate it in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940!

A little over a year after this sermon was delivered, Winston Churchill famously demanded: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in.” We always must have faith, and we must never give in or give up.

Rabbi Shapiro undoubtedly would have agreed.

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