Q&A: Sh’lah and Modern-Day Spies

Question: How did the sages know that “settling the land of Israel is the equivalent of all the commandments of the Torah.” (Sifrei to Parashath R’eh, 80) What does that even mean?

Question: How could you claim so rudely that certain gedolim of the past and present “are wrong” in their views concerning religious Zionism and the State of Israel? Isn’t that chutzpehdick?

Answers: There is an approach within Jewish scholarship to never say that a certain position is wrong. It sounds too disrespectful to some. I hate to say it, but that appraoch is also wrong. The Talmud is full of postions that are declared to be refuted, and if Maimonides has taught us nothing else, it is that refuted positions should be acknowledged as such despite the greatness of whoever may have espoused them. It is for this reason that Rabbi Nathan Adler took the young Hatham Sofer under his tutelage: because his father did not allow him to use his smarts to attempt to refute the arguments of his predecessors.

The answers to both questions are in this week’s parasha, but first, an overview.

1. Numbers 13 and 14 describe the spies’ mission, their report, the people’s reaction, and God’s punishment of the people. Note Moses’s argument against God’s destroying the people: “Now if You shall kill this people as one man, then the nations which have heard of Your fame will speak, saying: ‘Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land which He swore unto them, He slaughtered them in the wilderness.’” (14:15-16) That is, it would be a desecration of The Name if the Jews would be massacred in hutz laaretz (outside of the land of Israel) and not make it to the Land of Israel. After relenting, God still declares that their rejection of the land is in actuality a rejection of God Himself (!) (14:11, 23 35). The standard understanding of this anthropomorphic term “rejection of God” means that they rejected His Torah.

2. Numbers 15:1-16 details the proper amounts of flour and wine that are to be offered with each type of animal sacrifice. The second introductory verse reads, “When you are come into the land of your habitations, which I give unto you…” and closes with “As for the congregation, there shall be one statute both for you, and for the stranger that sojourns with you, a statute for ever throughout your generations; as you are, so shall the stranger be before the Lord.” That is, the entirety of God’s Torah obligates native Jews and converts alike. 

3. 15:17-21 discusses the commandment to separate halla, a portion of the dough for the kohanim, and this command is introduced with the statement “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When you come into the land where I bring you.”(15:18)

4. 15:22-31 discusses the special offering brought if the Sanhedrin rules to permit a form of idol worship, and the people act on the ruling, thus unwittingly involving themselves in idol worship. This is not explicit in the text; it merely says “And when you shall err, and not observe all these commandments, which the Lord has spoken unto Moses, even all that the Lord has commanded you by the hand of Moses, from the day that the Lord gave commandment, and onward throughout your generations;” and as Rashi points out in the name of the Sages, because the laws of a similar offering made to atone for every sin in the Torah are already described in Leviticus 4:13-21, it must be that the reference here to “not observe all of these commandments” is a reference to the sin that is the equivalent of all the others, idolatry. That is, practicing any form of idolatry, even unwittingly and even under the direction of the Sanhedrin, is like abrogating the entire Torah.

5. 15:27-31 describes the equivalent offering of an individual who sins similarly, and once again this is in contrast to the offering described in Leviticus 4:1-12, because this one specifically atones for idolatry and not all of the other sins: “But the soul that acts with a high hand, whether he be native-born or a stranger, the same blasphemes the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people because he has despised the word of the Lord, and has broken His commandment; that soul shall be utterly cut off, his iniquity shall be upon him.” Note the way he is described as having despised the word of the Lord, i.e., having rejected the entirety of the Torah and the commandments.

6. 15:32-36 describes how a man was put to death for violating the Sabbath, whose observance is described by the Sages as being equivalent to all the commandments of the Torah (Yerushalmi Nedarim 3:2).

7. 15:37-41 describes the commandments of tzitzith and techeleth, whose purpose is “that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the LORD.”

We see that the running theme of this week’s parasha is the idea that performing certain positive acts, like settling the land of Israel, keeping the Sabbath, and contemplating the tzitzith, are somehow like keeping the entire Torah, whereas certain infractions, like worshipping idols, or declaring one’s intent to not settle the land of Israel, or desecrating the Sabbath, are just as bad as violating the entire Torah.

In mathematical terms:

Settling the land of Israel = keeping the entire Torah.

Practicing idolatry = rejecting the entire Torah

Rejecting the land of Israel = Rejecting the entire Torah

Desecrating the Sabbath = rejecting the entire Torah

Contemplating the tziztith and techeleth = remembering all of the mitzwoth.

So, to answer the first question, the message of this week’s parasha, when considered as one cohesive whole, is that the settling of the land of Israel is equivalent to keeping all of the commandments, and to answer the second question, we know that great Jewish sages who oppose either settling the land of Israel, or establishing Jewish control over the land of Israel, or who merely advocate Jews’ remaining away from Israel, are dreadfully and absolutely wrong the same way we know that the spies, who were the gedolim of their time, were dreadfully wrong about the same issues. The same would be said about someone who would get up today and start challenging the uniqueness of the kohanim. Of course he would be wrong. And it even happened at some point in Jewish history.

However, today’s and yesterday’s incorrect luminaries are not wrong to the extent that they should be looked down upon, let alone punished, because they are what we would call shog’gim, acting unwittingly, which is also explicit in this parsha.

Earlier, I mentioned how Rabbi Herschel Schachter had once declared that the belief that the Israeli victories in ‘48 and ’67 were the doings of the sitra ahara, a qabbalistic idea that would be the equivalent of Satanic forces, was idolatrous. To me, what he said was both convincing and not as harsh as it initially sounds. I have friends who have taken great exception to R’ Schachter’s words, as how can he claim that anti-Zionist luminaries, like the Satmar Rebbe and others, would espouse such heretical ideas?

The first and most general answer is that is what rabbis do. They pronounce others’ ideas heretical. The rebbe and the rest of those who saw things his way also pronounced many ideas, especially those of religious Zionism which have been shown actually to be fully in line with ideas found in the prophets and the Talmud, to be heretical and idolatrous. It should not surprise anyone that the other side would make a similar argument, or attack in a similar manner.

Secondly and more pertinently, R’ Schachter is hitting on a legal point that is not well understood, and that is the concept of sh’gaga, unwittingness. One who transgresses a prohibition unwittingly is not as liable as one who sins purposefully. Those who harbor beliefs that God did not save His people, but that rather some other, sinister force created those miracles, subscribe to a belief that they do not realize is idolatrous. Likewise, those who believe that the Torah condones their willfully remaining in the Diaspora are also merely shog’gim. Our parasha demonstrates that 1. 10 out of 12 sages erred grievously with regard to the command to use military force to conquer the land of Israel and instead advocated remaining elsewhere, 2. it could very well happen in the future that the Sanhedrin will rule that the worst possible sins are not prohibited, at which point they will somehow have to come to terms with their mistake and make amends, and 3. just like a Sanhedrin may one day permit that which is idolatrous, it, or many sages independent of a Sanhedrin, may also advocate a halachic position similar to that which the spies espoused, and that would be considered, in God’s eyes, to be be just as egregious as permitting idol worship.

The only question remaining is, when the Sanhedrin makes an erroneous ruling, how does the truth get out? The answer is that somehow they realize they were wrong. I would venture that perhaps one of the sages who voted against the main ruling eventually persuades his colleagues to accept his line of reasoning, or that once the people start acting on that ruling and the deleterious repercussions of that ruling become apparent, the elders start to come around. For example, if anti-Zionist rabbis in pre-war Europe had ruled it forbidden to emigrate to Palestine, and then they realized that even though their ruling had internal logic, it led to the unacceptable consequence that all of its adherents got themselves killed, similarly to the way the sages in Maccabean times permitted warfare on the Sabbath after they realized that prohibiting it led to too many Jewish deaths, then they should disavow their position.

By writing about these issues in unfortunately honest terms, I hope to get the message out that the usual non- and anti-Zionist halachic policies are dangerous  to our people and antithetical to the Torah. There are many halachic controversies which have no real historical consequences. However, the viewpoint of the spies is still espoused today, and for the sake of our people, it needs to be done away with. And Caleb would agree with me.


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