This may possibly be the most radical idea you will hear from an Orthodox rabbi’s pulpit:
In the Torah portion we read today the Jewish People send spies to the land of Israel. They return with slanderous reports which the Jewish People believe. As a punishment G-d says, this generation will not enter the land of Israel. Most of us know this story quite well. But what happens next is fascinating:
The Torah tells us that the next morning, the Jewish People wake up and they feel terrible. They messed up royally! They made a terrible mistake! How could they believe in the spies and not believe in G-d? What were they thinking? How could they reject everything Moshe had taught them after experiencing the miracles of the Exodus?!
When this horrible thought sinks in, a large group of Jews gather together and declare: “Hinenu v’alinu el hamakom asher amar Hashem – ki chatanu./ We are ready, and we will go up to the place that G-d spoke of because we have sinned!” And they start travelling to Israel.
Moshe tries to stop them. He says, “Don’t go! G-d is not with you! G-d does not want you to go!”
And then he adds, “Hi lo tizt’lach, this won’t succeed!”
Our commentators, ever sensitive to the nuances of the Biblical text, infer the following mind-blowing lesson: Why does Moshe say, “this” won’t succeed? “This” implies that something quite similar will succeed. What can that possibly mean? Is there ever a time when we can defy G-d, go against His command, do something when He is not, so to speak, with us, and be successful?! Is that what Moshe means?!
Says the Zohar, that is exactly what he means. The Zohar suggests that there will be a time, a time much, much, later in Jewish history, a very dark time, after centuries of exile, when G-d will say no, and the Jewish People will say, yes! And the Jewish People will be successful.
Sounds heretical, no? Moses is telling the Jewish People that in the future you can defy G-d. G-d will say no, and you will say, yes, and in that situation, you will be successful?!
As heretical as it may sound, it is also exactly what happened.
80 years ago, G-d communicated to us through His hand in history, that He was not with us, that He was, to use the Biblical term, hiding His face, turning away from His people. The consequence of that turning away led to concentration camps, gas chambers, and the decimation of half of world Jewry. G-d made it abundantly clear, for reasons we do not dare explain or understand, that He was not among us.
And while this was happening in Europe, there were Jews who were fantasizing – they had a crazy dream of a Jewish State, of Jews emigrating to their historic homeland en masse. And again, G-d said, no. He said no by allowing local Arabs to terrorize the Jewish who were trying to build a homeland. He said, no, through the British and their infamous white paper, severely limiting emigration to Israel. And shortly thereafter, G-d said, no, through the mighty and powerful neighboring Arab countries who swore to destroy the Jews if they dared declare statehood.
Everything was stacked against us, every Divine sign you could ask for pointed us to throw in the towel, to give up on our heritage, to bury our dreams. G-d said, no!
And the Jewish People said, yes.
V’hi lo sitz’lach, and this time, said Moshe, you will not be successful. But in the future, you will.
This idea helps explain a bizarre sounding passage in the Talmud. The Gemara writes, Kol ma’she’omer l’cha ba’al habyis, aseh. Chutz mitzei. Whatever your host tells you to do, you should do. Except for when he tells you to leave.
Let’s say my host tells me to eat asparagus, I should eat it?! Really? I don’t like asparagus! In all seriousness, what does the Talmud mean to say?!
And then the second part of the statement, “Listen to everything except for when he tells you to leave.” Really?! Did they have no etiquette in ancient Babylon where they wrote the Talmud? When your host tells you to leave, you better leave! What in the world is going on here?
Rav Tzadok HaKohein explains, in line with the Zohar we just learned, that the Talmud is not talking about a regular host. It’s talking about a capital-H, host. G-d Almighty. G-d, after all, is the real ba’al habayit, Host of all hosts. And whatever He tells us to do we need to do – He is in charge.
But when G-d, our host, says, “Get out of my land,” when He says, “Go away from me,” then we don’t have to listen. We could stay. We should stay.
You know what this means practically?
There are times when G-d makes it very difficult for us to live in His home, the land of Israel, but we are told to ignore all the signs that tell us to leave. Instead, we are encouraged to stay.
Why He does this to us, we don’t know. Maybe it’s a test, maybe it’s a punishment, who knows? Hanistarot laShem Elokeinu, these are things beyond our comprehension. But what we do know, what the Talmud is teaching us is that we can ignore it and stay put.
And this is true, by the way, not only for G-d kicking us out of His physical home, but also when G-d seems to push us away from Him.
We have many people in this room today, who were born in a country where it was almost impossible to maintain any connection to their faith. A country in which G-d allowed people, diabolical people, to indoctrinate generation after generation with the notion that religion is evil, irrational, an “opiate.” G-d blocked all the doors, literally – closing the doors of the synagogues and Jewish schools, but even more impactfully, by blocking Jews of the former USSR from connecting to Hashem and to His Torah.
G-d said, no. G-d said, tzei, go away.
And once again, the Jewish People said, yes. We are not going anywhere. G-d, you can make it as difficult as you’d like; we’re staying put.
Elan, when I was your age, I remember being blown away by stories of Resfuseniks like Natan Sharansky, Jews in the former Soviet Union, who made their aspirations to make Aliyah to Israel clear to all. I was inspired by stories of the clandestine learning of Torah that was taking place. I was humbled by the men and women, the teenagers (!) who knew nothing and were struggling their way through the Alef Beis. Jews who said, no. They said no to the Communists, and ultimately, they said, no, to G-d. We’re not leaving our heritage.
But you, Elan, you do not need stories and you do not need books. You wake up every morning and you see a mother and father who defied the odds to bring you to a point where you can stand here and comfortably read the entire Parsha, where you could share a D’var Torah that you wrote, where you can talk freely and easily about your commitment to G-d and Judaism.
Judaism is more than Mitzvot. It is a shared heritage that taught us values that we treasure. You, Elan, you are a living testimony to the uniquely powerful trait and value that we as Jews inherited, of being defiant. Of never giving up. Of fighting everything that stands in the way of our spiritual dreams – even G-d Himself.
(I told you it was a radical idea.)
But this is not just history. This need for spiritual defiance, of staying put even when the Master of the House seems to be pushing us away, that battle is not over.
I’ve had so many conversations these past few months with people, who after not being in shul for over a year, they don’t feel so inclined to come back. I’ve heard from so many people who say they feel jaded, disillusioned, disheartened, distant from G-d and from our Torah. People who feel like all the signs are pointing them away, almost as if G-d is nudging them away from Him.
Elan, there will be times in your life where you may feel that way. We all do at times. But I hope and I pray that you, and all of us, are reminded of what Moshe taught in your Bar Mitzvah parsha, that there will be a time in the future, a time that we are clearly living through, where G-d will seem to be pushing us away. And Moshe tells us, don’t give in. Don’t give up. Keep pushing. Keep fighting. Even if the Master of the House says, leave, you can ignore Him!
If you keep fighting, eventually you will have a State of Israel. If you keep protesting, eventually those walls will come down. If you keep trying to come closer to Me, says G-d, eventually, you will.