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Thursday, 15 June, 2017 - 1:04 pm

The local Jewish Federation charity had never received a donation from the city’s banker, a very wealthy Jew, so the director made a phone call. “Our records show you make $800,000 a year, yet you haven’t given a penny to charity,” the director began. “Wouldn’t you like to help the Jewish community?”

The banker replied, “Did your research show that my mother is ill, with extremely expensive medical bills?”  “Um, no,” mumbled the director.  “Or that my brother is blind and unemployed? Or that my sister’s husband died, leaving her broke with seven kids?”  “I … I … I had no idea.”   “So,” said the banker, “if I don’t give them any money, why would I give any to you?”

The weekly Torah portion of Shlach tells the dramatic episode that unfolded 15 months after the Jewish Exodus from Egyptian slavery. The people of Israel were poised to enter and conquer the land promised by G-d to their ancestors when Moses dispatched 12 men -- "all prestigious individuals, leaders of Israel to survey the Holy Land and report back to the people on the nature of its terrain, its produce and its inhabitants.

Forty days later, on the eighth day of Av of the year 2449 since creation, or 1312 BCE, the spies returned, bearing samples of the land's huge and luscious fruit and the following assessment:

"We arrived at the Land to which you sent us," the spies said, "and indeed it flows with milk and honey and this is its fruit. But the people that dwells in the land is powerful, the cities are tremendously fortified and we also saw giants there. "We cannot go up against those people, for they are mightier than us," the spies proclaimed.

Only two of the 12 spies, Joshua and Caleb, returned with a different message: "If G-d desires us," they declared to their 10 colleagues, "He will bring us to this Land and give it to us... But do not rebel against G-d! Fear not the people of the Land, for they are our bread... G-d is with us; do not fear them."

The people, however, would not listen to the two isolated voices. The report that the other 10 spies brought back demoralized the Jewish nation and drained it of the motivation to enter the Land.

As a result, G-d informed Moses that the generation that received the Torah at Sinai would not enter the land. They would, instead, live out their lives in the wilderness. Only their children, one generation later, would enter the land.

For the next four decades the Jews would wander in the desert. Only 40 years after their Egyptian exodus, would their children and grandchildren finally cross the Jordan River, and conquer and settle the Promised Land.

What, then, is the point of G-d punishing the Jews and having them perish in the desert? Was this simply G-d being angry? Getting even?

Maimonides, in a novel interpretation,  suggests that the nation was psychologically and emotionally unready to conquer the land. Decades of oppression, slavery and suffering under the brutal Egyptian empire deprived the Hebrews of the courage and confidence required to win wars and create their own society. The Jews may have left Egypt, but Egypt had not left them.

How do we transform slaves into free-minded individuals? Such a dramatic change cannot happen overnight. G-d therefore contrived a two-point plan to prepare His people for the challenging road ahead. He had them spend four decades in wilderness.

It was  August 1929. The entire Jewish world was stunned by the slaughter of the Jewish community in Chevron and the destruction of the yeshiva there by the Arabs. 70 Jews were butchered to death in their homes and in the streets and it ended the Jewish community in Hebron till recent years. The British, who had the mandate over Palestine at the time, did nothing to restrain the Arabs during the pogrom.

It became known that a certain chief government secretary named Charles Lock (whose father was Jewish but converted to Christianity in England) was particularly guilty of cooperating with the Arabs. While the siege and massacre was still taking place, the chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Yitzchak Kook, called Lock demanding that he send in British troops to stop the Arabs from killing the unarmed Jews and yeshiva students in Chevron. Lock dismissed the suggestion, saying “What is there to do?” Rabbi Kook answered, “Shoot the murderers!” Like many before him, Lock answered, “I have not received any orders to do this.” Putting himself in danger, Rabbi Kook responded, “I order you in the name of human conscience!” Lock did nothing and the massacre continued.

Sometime later, at a major reception held by the British government, at which many reporters were present, Lock and Rabbi Kook found themselves near one another. Lock stretched out his hand to Rabbi Kook but the Rabbi said loudly, for everyone to hear, “I do not shake hands with someone whose hands are soaked in Jewish blood!” Lock angrily responded, “You Jews can protect yourselves but you cannot attack other people.” Rabbi Kook then answered, to everyone’s shock, “People who transgress ‘Thou shall not murder’ cannot give anyone ethical advice. When someone arises to kill a person, he must rise up to kill the attacker first!” The press was present at the event and reported on the entire incident, which reawakened the Jewish world’s honor, self-respect, and confidence in their ability to continue building the Holy Land.

Did you ever go to the circus? Remember those huge elephants that weighed several tons who were held in place by a small chain wrapped around one of their huge legs, and held to the ground by a small wooden stake? If those huge elephants wanted to, they could walk right through those small chains and that small wooden stake like a hot knife going through butter. But they don’t. Why is that?

When they were little baby elephants, they were chained down by those same small chains and the small wooden stakes. But to them, as babies, they couldn’t move. They tried and tried and tried again and could not release themselves from those chains and stakes. And then, an interesting thing happens. They stop trying. They gave up. They developed a belief system.

Now, as adult elephants, they don’t try because they are programmed to believe that there efforts would be useless – in vain. They simply don’t try because the memory of trying as babies is their main program.

And as huge, adult elephants, they don’t even try. So they’re held in prison by their beliefs.

The same is true with the elephant in each of us. The spies declared: “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so were we in their eyes.” As a result, the nation wept in vain. The spies caused the Jews to perceive themselves as hopeless, small and futile “grasshoppers.” Thus they also came to believe that everyone looks at them as mere grasshoppers. When you think you are weak, you believe that everyone considers you the same. You become meek, timid, and paralyzed.

It was Kaleb who declared, “We can do it!” We are not weak, we are not frail.

This is the confidence we so desperately need today—individually and as a people.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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