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piriual izoprenia
The Identity Crisis of the Jew
By Yosef Y. Jacobson
The story is told that the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, recently convened an emergency session to figure out a solution for the devastated Israeli economy.

One brilliant minister said, "Let's declare war on the U.S., and then, in the wake of the utter destruction America will bring upon us, we will receive billions of dollars for reconstruction, like Germany and Japan.

"Sounds great," responded another member of the Knesset. "One problem: What will we do if we win the war?"

History Rearranged

This week's Torah portion 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 (1)" -- 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 (2):

"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. The Amalekites dwell in the South, the Hittites, the Jebusites and the Emorites in the hills, and the Canaanites at the sea and on the banks of the Jordan...

"We cannot go up against those people, for they are mightier than He," the spies proclaimed.

Who is "He"? Should they have not said, "Mightier than us"? The Talmud explains (3) that the spies were referring to G-d. The spies were, in effect, saying that "they are mightier than He" -- that the conquest of the Holy Land is beyond the capacity of the Almighty Himself !

Only two of the 12 spies, Joshua and Caleb, returned with a different message (4): "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 entire assembly said to pelt them with stones," the Bible relates (5). The report that the other 10 spies brought back demoralized the Jewish nation and drained it of the motivation to enter the Land. All night, says the Bible (6), the Jewish people wept and bemoaned their fate, crying to Moses: "If only we had died in Egypt! If only we had died in the wilderness! Why is G-d bringing us to this land to fall by the sword, and for our wives and children to fall into captivity? Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?!"

As a result, G-d informed Moses that the generation that received the Torah at Sinai was not fit to enter the Land of Canaan. He decreed that the people should live out their lives as wanderers in the desert until a new generation could take up the challenge of conquering the land of Canaan and develop it as a "Holy Land," as the focus of G-d's presence in the material world.

Indeed, only 38 years later, in the year 1276 BCE, did the children and grandchildren of this generation cross the borders of the Jordanian river and settle the Promised Land.

What Really Happened?

At first glance, the entire story makes little sense.

In all of history, one cannot encounter a generation whose lives were more saturated with Divine miracles than Moses' generation. These 10 spies, and all of the Jews they were addressing, had witnessed how Egypt, the most powerful nation on earth at the time, was devastated with 10 supernatural plagues. They had experienced how this mighty empire was forced to free them because "the mighty hand" of G-d directly intervened -- for the only time in history -- to combat evil.

Just a short while before this debacle with the spies, these 10 men and all of their brethren saw how, when Pharaoh's armies pursued them, the sea split to let them pass and then drowned the Egyptians.

In the desert, the Bible describes (7) how miracles were the stuff of their daily lives: manna from heaven was their daily bread; "Miriam's well," a miraculous stone which traveled along with the Israelite camp, provided them with water; and "clouds of glory" sheltered them from the desert heat and cold, kept them clothed and shod, destroyed the snakes and scorpions in their path, and flattened the terrain before them to ease their way.

These were the people who, just a few months earlier, stood at the foot of Sinai and experienced, for the first and last time in history, how G-d revealed His presence to humanity, granting it His blueprint for living, His roadmap for peace in the world. This generation was accustomed to G-d's miracles like New Yorkers are accustomed to parking tickets. For them not to acknowledge the supernatural powers of G-d was a blatant denial of reality.

Yet these very same people declared, "We cannot go up against those people for they are mightier than He (G-d)!" 

Imagine if you had turned to one of these 10 spies as he was speaking of the impossibility of conquering the Land and had asked him, "What did you have this morning for breakfast"? He would certainly answer that it was the manna. When you'd ask him, "Did you purchase this manna in the grocery store?" he would look at you with astonishment and respond, "A store? What store? We receive our daily food from heaven."

"Really?" you'd persist. "And how exactly does food fall from heaven?"

The man would probably respond, "Listen, young man. Let me present you with religion 101: G-d created the world and He owns nature. He knows how to make food fall from heaven, if He wishes so."

Yet this very same spy, who had just enjoyed breakfast from heaven's kitchen and had just quenched his thirst from a miracle well, could stand before an entire nation and declare without hesitation, "Boys! We've got no hope to take over the Promised Land; G-d Himself can't help either. If we fight 'em, we are gonners!"

The entire nation not only was convinced but began mourning over its hopeless fate! And this is a people that just over a year earlier supernaturally crushed and defeated Egypt, the world's superpower!

Now, if the spies dispatched by Moses had been some lowly rabble-rousers or crude troublemakers, we would attribute their mutiny to brute instincts. We would assume that they employed chutzpah to deny the undeniable and reduce reality to myth.

But the Bible clearly states that the spies were no ordinary individuals: "They were all men of distinction, leaders of the children of Israel (1)." They are described as some of the greatest spiritual men of Israel living at the time, respective leaders of their
tribes, men of profound integrity, faith and vision.

What happened to them? What happened to the people?

There's one more important question.

When the two faithful spies, Joshua and Caleb, challenged the conclusion of the other 10 spies, they used these words: "If G-d desires us, 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... G-d is with us; do not fear them."

Why did they not make their point infinitely stronger by substituting their message of hope and faith with a message of facts and reality? Why did they not tell the Jews, "Don't you remember how we left Egypt? Have you forgotten how we crossed the Sea of Reeds? Don't you recall what you ate for breakfast this morning? Don't you see the clouds encircling you?"

Jewish ambivalence

The answer to these questions is at the heart of what may be one of the deepest psychological struggles confronting the Jewish psyche for close to 4,000 years: namely, our ambivalence concerning who we are and what is our role in the world.

Groucho Marx once remarked, "I wouldn't belong to a club that would have me as a member."

Sidney Morganbesser wittily said to Britain's chief rabbi (8) that the Jewish maxim of recent history has been: Incognito, Ergo Sum, "I am invisible, therefore I am."

What is at the essence of this identity crisis?

A human being (or a people or a culture) may perceive himself as a religious man, a heavenly creature, a transcendental heart, a sublime soul, a celestial brain, a spiritual existence, a fragment of eternity.

A human being (or a people or a culture) can also perceive himself as a secular humanist, an earth-bound creature, an intelligent Homo sapiens, a mundane, materialistic and bodily phenomenon.

Here is the origin of the "Jewish problem." Since the Jew cannot be reduced to either of the above categories, the Jew deep down struggles to come to terms with himself or herself on the deepest levels of self awareness.

The Jew feels and knows inside that he is not a purely celestial creature, a piece of transcendence, an otherworldly soul. The Jew is keenly aware of the truth that he enjoys money, food, fame, sport, intimacy, power, leisure (and sometimes music, art, literacy and knowledge) as powerfully as any good gentile. In that sense, the Jew sees himself as a proud normal member of our planet.

On the other hand, when the Jew begins to define himself as a purely secular creature, a physical human being craving to enjoy life, he experiences an illogical emptiness. Deep inside, the Jew is not content with his position as an earthly creature. Even if he convinces himself that he is authentically happy as an assimilated member of the larger society, the non-Jew around him senses that the Jew is "irregular." The non-Jew instinctively feels that there is something "different" about the Jew, that he is not part and parcel of "the world;" he is a "stranger among us."

So who is the Jew? If the Jew is not an angel and he is not a man, who is he?

Intellectually, we may contrive some cute equation to solve the problem. But existentially and emotionally it is difficult for the Jew to come to terms with his inner destiny. This also was the profound struggle that the generation exiting the desert en route to conquer and settle a land faced.

A Tale of Two Lives

The first generation of Jews who left Egypt lived on a spiritual island, a transcendental oasis, a celestial plain. Encompassed by heavenly clouds, nourished with food from heaven, learning Divine wisdom from Moses, the greatest teacher of all time, and witnessing miracles on a daily basis transformed their lives into an absolute soul-oriented experience, a veritable paradise on earth.

For them, the definition of Jewishness was sublimity and transcendence: to discover your inner soul and fly with it. They had become so deeply in tune with this perspective on life that when many of them ate meat -- the symbol of crude physical life -- they died (as described in the previous week's Torah portion, Behaaloscah), because it was too alien an experience for them.

This is the real reason why the spies and their generation were loath to enter the land. They were well aware that once they entered the land, the supernatural environment they enjoyed in the desert would come to a halt. Becoming a people with a land to keep up would inevitably turn them into politicians, soldiers, lawyers, businessmen, soldiers, farmers and ordinary mundane people stressed by the burden to survive and obsessed with the physical delights of life.

Settling the land, they well knew, would entail plowing, sowing and harvesting; it would mean engaging in commerce and levying taxes; it would require a bureaucracy to run the land and an army to defend it. Their underlying problem with the land was, as the spies expressed it in dramatic prose, that "it is a land that consumes its inhabitants,"  it consumes one's time and energy with its corporeal demands and infringes on a person's capacity to be real and deep and live with one's soul pearmenantly.

They were unwilling to relinquish their spiritual utopia for the entanglements of an earth-bound life. They refused to accept what was, in their perception, a new definition of Judaism -- an attempt to survive and thrive in the physical world.

Now we can well understand the spies' argument that "We cannot go up against these people, for they are mightier than He," notwithstanding the tremendous miracles which G-d had performed and was performing for them during those very moments.

We cannot have it both ways, argued the spies. Either we are to be a spiritual people engaged exclusively in spiritual pursuits and sustained by supernatural means, or else we are to enter the natural world of the farmer, merchant and soldier and become subject to its laws. And under this paradigm, which decrees that the numerous, mighty and well-fortified will defeat the few and the weak -- there is no way we can defeat the inhabitants of Canaan.

The spies argued that if G-d wishes for us to live a spiritual life, then, certainly, He can sustain us with miracles as He has in the past. But if His desire is that we abandon our supra-natural existence to enter the land and assume a natural life, then He Himself
essentially has decreed that natural law will govern our fate. In that case, He cannot empower us to miraculously conquer the land, since were He to do so, this would defeat the entire purpose of entering the "land."

So, the spies concluded, "they are mightier than He;" even G-d cannot help us if He Himself has chosen to transform us from celestial nomads into a materially structured nation.

Let G-d decide once and for all, the spies continued, what exactly is the purpose of the Jew. If He wishes us to be a sublime, supernatural people akin to fragments of heaven walking the earth, let Him not send us into a land in which we will have to assume the status of a natural people governed by politics, economics and survival of the fittest.

If G-d wishes us to be part of planet earth, subjected and defined by the laws of the earth, so be it! But then we must consider what the media and political and military strategists have to say about reality. And from their perspective, our attempt to conquer the land is doomed to failure.

Their message was that at some point you have to decide what you are, a spirit or a body.

So, we come right back to our previous question of who and what is a Jew? Is he a living resonance from heaven or a hard-core businessman? Does the Jew believe in G-d, or does he believe in Washington? Should the Jew ignore the world or must the Jew please the world? Is the Jew part of Kofi Annan's United Nations or are we an isolated people who just don't really fit into this planet?

Since the era of the spies, Jews have argued about their self-definition. The great debate taking place these days about Israel and its future among its Arab neighbors boils down to this fundamental question of what is a Jew.

The bridge

One cannot begin to answer the question if one does not become comfortable with the concept of paradox. The Jew is a paradox.

The first generation of Jews who left Egypt was indeed the most spiritual assembly of Jews in our entire history. Due to their profound spiritual status, most of them could not fathom the ultimate purpose and role of the Jew and Judaism. They could understand the Jew as a creature of heaven or as a creature of earth. But the Jew, in his or her deepest place, is neither.

He is a bridge.

The Jew serves as the road that originates in heaven and culminates on earth. The Jew was chosen to become the bridge between the spiritual and the mundane, between soul and body, and between G-d and money. As such, the Jew feels comfortable neither in heaven nor on earth; he finds no place for himself in the physical or in the spiritual per se. His role is to become a rope that links the holy to the unholy, that transforms the unholy into holy.

The Jew enjoys money, food, fame and leisure because his function is to bring the light of G-d into the egocentric space of earth. He may own a profane heart or a beastly disposition because G-d desired that the Jew transform a cesspool - both his own and the world's - into a home for G-d (9).

The Generation Gap

What the spies and their generation failed to understand is that the entire role of the Jew is to imbue our plowing, sowing and commerce with a holy and G-dly purpose; to create a land that is holy, a nature that is miraculous, to make the ordinary extraordinary (10).

So does the Jew believe in G-d or in Washington?

He believes that in a very deep place, the two are truly one. G-d is not only the G-d of heaven but also the G-d of earth. G-d is not only the core of the sublime and the supernatural but also the core of the earthly and the natural.

If G-d wants you to undertake a task, He need not resort to heavenly means to ensure its success. Nature itself may become a reflection of G-d as much as the supernatural.

This was the message of Joshua and Caleb, the two faithful spies who believed that the Jews would be triumphant in their attempt to settle their land. They could not discuss the miraculous past of the people, for the spies were exploring the natural future of the same people. What Joshua and Caleb said was, "If G-d desires us, 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."

In other words, though G-d desires from us to become part of the natural world while employing natural means for our survival, let us remember that if we follow G-d's course, He will allow His supernatural light to flow through the natural channels of politics, economics and military prowess.

Because at the end of the day, G-d and the world are one.

(This essay is based on an address by the Lubavithcer Rebbe, Shabbas Shelach 5722 (June 30 1962) 11).


1) Numbers 13:3.
2) ibid. 13:27-31.
3) Soteh 35a.
4) Ibid. 14:8-9.
5) Ibid. 14:10.
6) Ibid. 14:1-3.
7) All of these stories are recorded in detail in the book of Exodus and in various Midradshim. See Michilta to Exodus 13:21; 15:22; Sifri to Numbers 10:34; Bamidbar Rabah 1:2; Tanchumah Beshalach 3 and 18; Yalkut Shimono Remez 255 and 729.
8) Quoted in Radical Then, Radical Now, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, pp. 203-4.
9) See Tanya chapter 36.
10) Despite this, G-d placed Moses' generation in a totally spiritual environment, as a preparation to then entering and settling the land. For to sanctify the land, one requires a time in which he is isolated from the mateiral. However, this phase of our national existence was not an end in itself, but the way in which to acquire the tools and resources to miraculize the natural and elevate the everyday.
11) Published in Likkutei Sichos vol. 4 pp. 1041-1047. For another lovely rendition of this talk by the Rebbe, see Week In Review (edited by Yanki Tauber, published by VHH) Shlach 5758.


Posted on June 24, 2005
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