Bush and Moses

Recently, while going through an airport during one of his many trips, President Bush encountered a man with long hair, wearing a white robe and sandals, holding a staff.

President Bush approached the man and said, "Aren't you Moses?"

The man didn't answer, but just kept staring straight ahead.

Again the President said, "Moses!" in a loud voice.

The man just kept staring ahead, never answering the president.

Soon a secret service agent came along and President Bush grabbed him and said, "Doesn't this man look like Moses to you?"

The secret service agent agreed with the President.

"Well," said the President, "Every time I say his name, he just keeps staring ahead and refuses to speak. Watch!" Again, the President yelled, "Moses!" and again the man stared straight ahead.

Finally, the secret service man went up to the man in the white robe and whispered, "You look just like Moses. Are you Moses?"

The man leaned over and whispered, "Yes, I am Moses. But the last time I talked to a bush, I spent 40 years wandering in the desert!"

The Drama With The Spies

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. Then, 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 us," the spies proclaimed.(3)

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 would not enter the land. They would, instead, live out their lives in the wilderness. Only their children, one generation later, would enter the land.

For the next four decades the Jews would wander in the desert. Only in the year 1276 BCE, 40 years after their Egyptian exodus, would their children and grandchildren finally cross the Jordan River, and conquer and settle the Promised Land.

The Metamorphosis

A superficial reading of the Biblical episode would produce the conclusion that G-d was simply punishing the people for rejecting His plan that they enter the land. One of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages, Maimonides, sees this divine edict not as a punishment, but as remedy.

In a novel interpretation, Maimonides suggests(7) that observing the mass hysteria that consumed the Jews after hearing the report of the spies about the land of Canaan and its inhabitants demonstrated to the Almighty that the nation was psychologically and emotionally unequipped to conquer the land. They possessed a slave mentality. Decades of oppression, slavery and suffering under the brutal Egyptians deprived the Hebrews of the courage and confidence required to win wars and create their own society. The Jews may have left Egypt, but Egypt had not left them. They possessed neither the dignity nor the self-assurance critical to reclaiming G-d's gift to them: the land of Israel.

How do we transform slaves into free-minded individuals? Such a dramatic change cannot happen overnight. G-d therefore contrived a two-point plan to prepare His people for the challenging road ahead. First, He had them spend four decades in wilderness.

"It is a well-known fact," states Maimonides, "that traveling in the desert, being deprived of physical enjoyments such as bathing and the like, subjecting the body to the wildlife, produces courage. An antithetical lifestyle [of prosperity and material comfort], on the other hand, creates weak character."

But that was not enough. G-d realized that the first generation of Jewish adults born and raised in Egyptian slavery and oppression would never be able to undergo the profound psychological metamorphosis needed to develop the spirit of liberty. The slave mentality had become too deeply ingrained in their psyches. "During the wanderings, however, another generation arose, one that has not been accustomed to degradation and slavery," Maimonides writes. G-d realized that it would take a generation born and raised in freedom to possess the courage required to fight the battles of conquest and create a Jewish society on the soil of the land of their forefathers.

Modern-Day Heroism and Slavery

Britain's chief rabbi applies this Maimonidian idea to the challenge facing the Jews of the 18th and 19th centuries to leave behind their "ghetto identity" and integrate into the modern world of Enlightenment and emancipation. Most Jews were unready, emotionally and intellectually, to take on the challenge. As a result, many felt compelled to retreat behind self-imposed ghetto walls, while many others assimilated completely. Few managed to enter the new world while retaining the integrity of their faith and heritage.

I would dare to apply the idea to our contemporary situation today. Five decades of governing a sovereign Jewish State in a hostile Middle East has exposed the world to extraordinary heroism and courage displayed by tens of thousands young Jewish adults. From the ashes of Auschwitz and Treblinka, a generation rose like lions to fight for their old-new homeland and its Jewish population. Twenty-three thousand young holy souls fell on the battlefields of Israel to protect their brothers and sisters from another Auschwitz.

But 2,000 years of exile, rampant anti-Semitism and endless persecution have left an indelible mark on our fragile psyches. We may have learned to fight wars and build corporations, but ambivalence has taken root in our souls. We began questioning our identity, loathing our traditions, blaming ourselves for the animosity of our neighbors and attempting to "fit in" as much as possible.

I have yet to meet self-hating Italians or self-hating Arabs. They love themselves. We are insecure with who we are and what we stand for.

The examples are too numerous and painful to mention. Perhaps the timeliest case in point is Ariel Sharon's incessant battle to evacuate all of the Jewish settlements from Gaza.

The Gaza Withdrawal

Let us reflect on this for a moment. Arabs are entitled to live wherever they wish in the world and in Israel. Arabs can reside in Tel Aviv, Haifa, West and East Jerusalem, Ashdod and Netanya. So why should Jews need to be expelled from Gaza? How would the world react if any of us would even think of uprooting Arab villages from anywhere inside Israel?

Is this what has become of the Zionist dream? Jews can live in New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and almost every other part of the world. The only place they are forbidden to live is in their own homeland, on the soil they have been toiling for thousands of years.

Many suggest that it is unjust for Israeli soldiers to protect 7,200 settlers in a dangerous environment. "Why should Israeli soldiers risk their lives and die because of Jews who insist they want to live among Arab terrorists?" many argue.

But if we follow this logic, we ought to extend the question. Why should Israeli bodyguards risk their lives to protect Jews who choose to hang out in Tel Aviv cafes and restaurants from potential suicide bombers? Just because you want to enjoy a cappuccino must we endanger the life of a young Israeli soldier?

The answer is, of course, that when you are confronted by a sworn enemy who wishes to destroy your country and your people, you do not retreat. You eliminate the enemy; you don't expel the innocent.

The Jewish withdrawal from Gaza is both foolish and dangerous. First, it allows the terrorists to take over the Jewish settlements, coming that much closer to Jewish cities around Gaza for sending missiles and terrorizing them.

Second, it demonstrates to the Arabs that terror pays off, that the more Jews they burn alive, the more they will compel Jews to retreat. Why should this withdrawal not inspire Arabs to continue their patterns of murdering Jewish men, women and children?

Thirdly, the Gaza withdrawal escapes the sane simple truth: You never deal with killers who wish to destroy your entire country by retreating. You eliminate murderers.

But many of us suffer from a terrible ambivalence. We are morally ashamed and insecure. If we wish to survive, we must educate a new generation of Jews who will not be ashamed of their moral and eternal right to live in every part of the world, including in the ancient land of Israel.


1) Numbers 13:3.

2) ibid. 13:27-31.

3) Sotah 35a.

4) Ibid. 14:8-9.

5) Ibid. 14:10.

6) Ibid. 14:1-3

7) The Guide to the Perplexed, Section 3, chapter 32. The English translation is based on the Tevon and the Kapach Hebrew translations from the original Arabic.

[My thanks to Shmuel Levin for his editorial assistance.]