Have you ever noticed the logo of the Israeli tourist ministry?
It is two men carrying a huge cluster of grapes.
You know, the spies from this week’s parsha who carry the fruit back to the Jewish People, then share a slanderous report about the land of Israel, using those fruit as props, then end up dying by plague, and causing the Jewish People to delay entering the land by 40 years. THAT’s the symbol they chose to use as the symbol of the tourist industry. What were they thinking?!
I’ve gotten over the many English signs in Israel with terrible grammar. Okay, they didn’t check in with one of the, I don’t know, two million English-speaking Israelis, fine. But this?! How could the State of Israel go ahead and choose, out of all the Biblical stories, the one story that represents such failure?! The one story that represents Jewish leaders sabotaging their opportunity to govern the land of Israel, the one story that represents a complete breakdown in leadership – how these spies could not rally around the leadership of Moshe, the one story that represents a group of leaders who for their own gain caused the Jewish People so much suffering…
Until I realized, wait a second, I cannot think of a story that represents the State of Israel better than the story of the spies! You know, the country that’s about to go into its fifth set of elections in three years, fifth! because none of the leaders seem to be able to get their act together. The country where the teachers are striking and not showing up to teach their classes. The country that just issued an unofficial suggestion to tourists to not bring luggage because there is so much chaos in their airports. Maybe spies carrying some grapes is not such a bad symbol for the State of Israel, after all.
Obviously, I’m being a little cynical, but it does beg the question – at what point in this experiment called the reborn state of Israel, would we say, maybe this was a mistake?
Let me explain what I mean: Over the past hundred years, there has been pushback in some Jewish circles about the legitimacy and appropriateness of creating a Jewish State. There is a Talmudic passage that, in its simple interpretation, indicates that it is forbidden for the Jewish People to reclaim the land of Israel until the times of Mashiach. Further, some Jewish leaders argued that there was a spiritual danger in living in a country that is Jewish, but not religious in nature. And lastly, some argued that it was a disgrace to have the holy land of Israel led by politicians who were not sensitive to the spiritual nature of the land.
The most famous and vocal opponent of the establishment State of Israel was the first Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel of Satmar. He dedicated a book to this topic; filled with argument after argument as to why the state of Israel was a terrible idea and a sin. He wrote this book in 1958.
However, in 1967, he felt compelled to write a follow-up book. Why? Because the six-day war, the miraculous success of the six-day war, seemed to be the nail in his ideological coffin. The fact that the IDF was able to defeat Jordan, Syria, in Egypt in such a short amount of time, the fact that Israel was able to more than double her land mass, and the fact that Har Habayit b’yadeinu; Yerushalayim and the Temple Mount were once again in Jewish hands, indicated to all that clearly, clearly, the State of Israel was no mistake. It seemed that G-d, through this victory was making it abundantly clear to all that the State of Israel was His will, not a sin! How else could one explain the miraculous nature of those six days? G-d was so clearly speaking to us and telling us, “You made the right choice!” G-d was screaming through the IDF, through the march of history, that He was happy to have us back in the land.
And so, Rav Yoel of Satmar felt the need to defend his thesis. He wrote another book, explaining how the six-day war was not the act of G-d. His book explained how people were misinterpreting these events, and instead, G-d was sending us a very different message.
Let’s perform a thought experiment, a very dark thought experiment – let’s say the six-day war did not go as it did. Let’s say the six-day war went ahead like some thought it would, with mass casualties and huge losses. The Satmar Rebbe may have written a very different book. This book would have been much easier for him to write. It would have pointed to the defeat, Heaven forbid, of the IDF, as a proof; as a message from G-d that we made mistake, that we should pack our bags and leave.
This argument, for and against the establishment of the State of Israel is based on a principle – G-d speaks to us through history. It’s certainly not as clear as the classical prophetic voice. But it is a communication and we’re obligated to listen to, to attempt to interpret, and to internalize. When things go well for the Jewish People, what does that mean, what is G-d trying to say to us? And when things do not go well, Heaven forbid, we also have to ask ourselves, what is G-d trying to say.
Rav Yosef Soloveitchik reported that during the Holocaust, he used to be confronted by Christians who would say, “See! Clearly, G-d has forsaken the Jewish People. Clearly, you all made a mistake. How else could He be allowing this Holocaust to take place?!” It’s that same principle.
Thank G-d, Israel is doing just fine. Chaos in the Knesset, yes. Bureaucratic dysfunction, yes. Splintering of society, yes. Fine. But there is also so much good. The tech boom in Tel Aviv continues to flourish. Official ties with Saudi Arabia seem to be around the corner. And for all the societal disunity, there is more and more overlap between the different segments of the country taking place away from the media and outside of the limelight of the political sphere. Baruch Hashem, the State of Israel is alive and well. Very well. But I return to my original question: what if it was not doing well? What if… and I rather not even say, but what if things were really not going well, how would we interpret that message? Would the Satmar Rebbe be vindicated after all?
After G-d informs the Jewish People that they would not be entering the land of Israel and that they would be spending the next forty years in the desert, a large group, recognizing that they had sinned, decided to right the wrong. They acknowledge that they should have believed in Hashem, they arm themselves and start marching towards the Holy Land. “וַיַּשְׁכִּ֣מוּ בַבֹּ֔קֶר וַיַּֽעֲל֥וּ אֶל־רֹאשׁ־הָהָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֑ר הִנֶּ֗נּוּ וְעָלִ֛ינוּ אֶל־הַמָּק֛וֹם אֲשֶׁר־אָמַ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה כִּ֥י חָטָֽאנוּ׃ In the morning, they went to the top of the mountain and proclaimed, behold, we will go to the place that G-d had told us about, because we have sinned.”
Moshe tells them, “Don’t do it! G-d does not want you to do it.” And then Moshe says,
וְהִ֖וא לֹ֥א תִצְלָֽח
“And THIS will not be successful.”
That’s weird. This, as opposed to what?
Says Rav Tzadok Hakohein (Tzidkas HaTzadik, 46) – Moshe was telling them, “Defying G-d by entering the land of Israel will not be successful THIS time. But there will be a time in the future that it will be successful; a time in which even if G-d says, no, you shouldn’t stop. Go anyway and you will be successful!” Meaning, even if the dreams of our enemies come true, Heaven forbid, we should not see that as a sign of G-d pushing us away from our land. No matter how bad it gets, no matter how much it may seem that G-d is telling us that this experiment is a failure, persevere, don’t give up, don’t allow those messages to deter you from staying in G-d’s home.
Rav Tzadok does not limit this idea to the land of Israel, he interprets this section to be relevant to the everyday life of every Jew. There is a passage in the Talmud that goes like this: Whatever your host tells you to do, you should. “Kol mah she’omer lecha ba’al habyais, aseh. Chutz, mi”tzei!” With the exception of the host kicking you out of the house. If he tells you to leave, tzei, you can ignore him.
What kind of strange etiquette did they have in the ancient world? Please don’t try that at my house. If I ask you to leave, I really need you to leave. What in the world does this passage mean?!
Rav Tzadok explains that the Gemara is not talking about social etiquette, how to be a guest. It is describing our relationship with G-d. G-d is the host (not the ghost). G-d is in control of the world. Whatever he tells us to do, we need to listen. “Kol mah she’omer lecha ba’al habyais, aseh”
But there’s one exception. Sometimes G-d seems to be pushing us away, sometimes, we feel like we’re trying so hard, but everything is going wrong. We’re working on ourselves endlessly, but we keep on falling short. We want to connect to Hashem every time we come to shul, but we feel like He’s ignoring us. Sometimes, the messages we are receiving from Hashem seem to be telling us, “Tzei! Go away. I don’t need you here.”
And to that Talmud responds. Yes, we must listen to G-d. Not only must we listen to the explicit messages of the Torah, but we must also listen to the implicit messages, the messages of our life, asking ourselves constantly, what is G-d trying to tell me? And then live our lives accordingly. “Kol mah she’omer lecha ba’al habyais, aseh.”
But there’s one exception. There is one message we have every right to ignore. “Chutz, mi”tzei!” When we feel down, when we feel distant, when we feel turned off, don’t take that to heart. Push on. Forge forward. Use that beautiful Jewish characteristic called chutzpah. No matter how many times Hashem says no or He says go, we have a right and an obligation to refuse, to stay put, and to say G-d, I am not going anywhere. I am staying with You.
Those two people carrying that huge cluster of grapes, they remind us that G-d does want us in His home. Yes, there was a time when He said, no, when He said, leave. But now, in this pre-Messianic era, even if He tells us to leave, even if, Heaven forbid, all goes bad in our precious homeland or in our own spiritual lives, even if it feels like He wants nothing to do with us, we will push forward, we will not listen. V’hi sitzlach. And we will be successful.