Parshas Shelach & Today's Protests

Gavriel Cohn,

לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
Gavriel Cohn
grew up in the Jewish community of London. He is currently a student at University College London (UCL).

Sefer Bamidbar opens detailing the regal, almost military formation the Jewish People were to take in their desert journey, marching after the Divine Cloud of Glory and to the call of trumpets. Yet, in striking contrast to this portrayal of national order and perfect sequence, our last two Torah portions of Bahalosecha and Shelach Lecha, then turns to the fractured personal affairs of the People, telling of the series of complaints and rebellions the people had, rallying against Moses and against God. Their sense of frustration began from their departure from Mount Sinai, as Nachmanides describes:

‘When they [the Jewish People] distanced themselves from Mount Sinai, which was almost like a permanent encampment… [they] found themselves in the vast terrifying wilderness. They made themselves uncomfortable. They said, "What will we do, how will we live in this wilderness? What will we eat and drink? How can we handle this oppression? When will we leave [this wilderness]?... They were speaking from the bitterness of their souls like people who are in pain do. And this was wicked in the eyes of God, for they should have followed Him with joy and good spirit from all of the good that God had bestowed upon them. Instead, they were like people being forced, like people in pain, like people who were annoyed at their poor situation… [Later] they were annoyed that they lacked enjoyable things in the wilderness…’

The nation was stricken with fear and self-pity in the face of real hardships. Yet, as Nachmanides explains, they still should have been joyful and confident, happy in the knowledge that God was guiding them, that they stood supported and not alone.

Later in the desert journey, as Nachmanides further charts, Moses decided to allow spies to be sent for reconnaissance, to be able to scout out the most vulnerable po‎sitions for their conquest of the Land. He further allowed (and God agreed) to dispatch them in order to relay to the people a first-hand account of how plentiful the Land was, a glowing report to boost their spirits:

‘It is well-known that Egypt is not very far from Hebron, only a seven-day walking distance, and the Land of Canaan reaches on its border near Egypt… [However,] Israel in the land of Egypt were slaves performing hard labour, neither knowing nor understanding [whether the Land of Canaan was good]. Therefore, Moses wanted the [spies] to tell them all about the Land, to gladden them with its virtues… So that they may tell the People, who would rejoice and renew their strength to go up there happily. Therefore, he told them: “And you shall be strong and take from the fruit of the Land,” in order that they see in their own eyes the praise of the Land.’

Yet their morale was not lifted. Instead, the spies themselves despaired, dreading having to enter the Land, even fabricating a negative report. The people continued to wallow in self-pity and fear, frightened of suffering a terrible defeat at the hands of a superior enemy. They wept and complained, then they arose in an attempted rebellion to overthrow the leadership of Moses and return to Egypt, the very House of their Slavery.

Their persistent fear and sense of suffering is understandable. They were, as many have explained, ex-slaves. Their sense of vulnerability was further compounded by their terror of being in a desolate wilderness with no steady food-supply (see Rashbam and Emes Le’Yaakov in several places in Sefer Shemos and the Ramban in Sefer Devarim; although see Ramban,  Bamidbar 20:17, "...Umah she'omar..." for the instances where their complaints were, in his view, entirely unjustified). Yet, they should have appreciated that God would enable them to succeed and so should have adopted a more optimistic (and truthful) outlook. As our concluding Torah portion itself instruct us: ‘You should not explore after your eyes and after your hearts that lead you astray [in doubt and fear]… I am the Lord your God Who took you out of Egypt.’

One cannot help but recognise certain parallels to our times; messages, at least, that we can learn from. Sections of our society, like the Communists of the previous century, have adopted a certain perception of the world’s order, claiming that our society is built as an exploitative hierarchy, ruled by oppressors subjugating the oppressed (“that the Land devours its dwellers… there we saw the giants… we were like grasshoppers in their eyes”), and that those oppressed must overthrow their tyrannical oppressors. Today, unlike the Communists of the past, however, the supposed struggle has changed. Thankfully, economic exploitation and political discrimination have, by and large, ended in the West. Yet, as political commentators have shown, in an effort to continue to view human civilisation as one cast as a tyrannical hierarchy, the adherents of this ideology simply moved their struggle to the socio-cultural realm. After searching for any hints of injustice they eventually found one. They took up battle against an almost entirely abstract, conceptual enemy. Human typology, societal models, and language became the factory owners and bourgeois of the past (despite the fact that these carry no intent to harm or subjugate others) and minority social groups became the oppressed proletariat. In the last few weeks the identity of these tyrants have shifted still, this time to old statutes, with people perceiving themselves as persecuted merely due to the silent presence of a few ignored bronze sculptures; all so that people may continue their struggle against perceived oppression.

As it stands today, this view of mankind, divided between the oppressed and the tyrants, is fuelled by a base, suspicious view of man, that both man and society is inherently sinful and corrupt. In their frenzied protests these groups have failed to appreciate that our society is one which, in contrast to almost every other polity in history, does not stand to oppress certain groups but rather to shower indiscriminately its many blessings. More alarmingly still, such a view of the world-order and the need to overthrow it, in practice, becomes driven more by hatred against the perceived oppressors than out of love for the oppressed. In all its self-righteousness, it leads, as we have seen, to violence and, eventually, as the Twentieth Century has attested, to the most frightening, murderous crimes against humanity.

Certainly, there are still prejudices that certain groups face and obstacles that need to be overcome. Such was also the case with the Jewish People in the desert, who still had to bear the harsh conditions of the desert and to then launch an assault on the Land. Yet, we should not be embittered with self-pity and a sense of oppression, and so attempt, like our Biblical ancestors of old, to overthrow the norms of living and return to the House of Slavery. Instead, we all are enjoined to march onward with joy in our step; happy both at our situation today, and at the steady progress still being made.