Faith and Reality

I contrast this week's reading with the portion of "Lech Lecha", where Abraham is told to leave his birthplace and go to a land that God will show him. Abraham follows, not even knowing where he is going. His faith is strong enough to tell him that if God is guiding him, his destination can be nothing but successful.

The Israelites were promised the land of Canaan. This promise was given to Abraham and repeated to each of the patriarchs. It was repeated again to Moses and the people at Mount Sinai. There was no doubt, there was no question.

There was no need for spies. With our perfect hindsight, we can say that the people should have gone as Abraham went, with faith and confidence.

Why, then, did Moses agree to send the spies? The plot thickens when we consider that Moses had an inkling that the spies would not do good. He prays that Joshua be spared "the plotting of the spies". This happens before they are sent. If he had a gut feeling that something was amiss, why did he send them anyway?

One could answer that his prayer for Joshua was not that the spies were going to speak ill of the land. It was rather that they would be jealous of Joshua, who was Moses's protege. These spies were princes in their own right, and may have felt inclined to violence against Joshua in a sort of coup. There is an echo of the story of Joseph and his brothers, who were jealous of his status in his father's eyes and wanted to kill him before they sold them into slavery.

According to that answer, Moses didn't fear the spies as far as the land goes, only as far as Joshua goes.

I think, though, there is another explanation. According to Jewish law, a judge must be completely free of influenced by litigants. A litigant who gives a gift to a judge, even if it is to judge fairly, has eliminated that judge from eligibility in his case. Judges are human beings, and even though the gift was to be objective, they can no longer be objective.

So too with the spies. They needed to be objective, not with a personal agenda. I feel they have a personal agenda, perhaps against Joshua, perhaps a need to demonstrate their own independence and leadership. Maybe they needed to go against Moses in order to state their claim to leadership. Thus, Moses prays that Joshua maintain his objectivity. There is a lot more to say in this direction, which I hope to address in a future post.

With all that, the question is stronger. Why did Moses send them if it was so risky?

I believe it was because the people were hesitant. Moses knew they were afraid of the battles ahead. And he knew that psychologically, the best way to proceed is in small steps. Therefore, the first step would be to send advance scouts. He specifically gives them military and strategic instructions, including what roads to take, what the fruits are like so they will know how much provisions they will need and so forth. They are NOT to evaluate whether or not the project is worthwhile. They are only to give logistical details.

If the people had been on the level of faith of Abraham, Moses would've never sent spies. He felt that the approach of reality was necessary here.

If Moses made such an error, what can we ever say? The best we can do is try to learn from what the Torah tells us. And what the Torah is telling us is to follow God's Word without hesitation and fear. If God is with us, we can proceed on faith. If God is not with us, no amount of reality action will help. The sequel of the spies episode is the story of the "ones who jumped the gun".

They decided, after God decreed 40 years in the desert as punishment for the spies, to go immediately into the land of Israel. Moses warns them that God will not be with them, and they have no chance of success. They go anyway, and are soundly defeated in their first military encounter.

If God is with us, we can proceed on faith. If God is not with us, no amount of reality action will help.

The Jewish people in the state of Israel is at a crisis of faith. We are being asked to follow the path of "reality" in our relations with the Palestinian Arabs, Iran and the other existential threats of our day. On the face of it, the state of Israel exists in defiance of the laws of nature and reality. If God is not with us, none of this could exist. If God is not with us, no amount of land-for-peace or other peace process concessions will make us more secure.

Our job is to bring God with us. "And it was when the Ark traveled, Moses said 'Rise up oh Lord and let Your enemies scatter before Thee...'". If God walks with us, we need do nothing more than show up. What is needed is an awakening of faith in the Jewish people, and in God's promise to Abraham, "to thee and thy seed will I give this Land".

The War of Gog and Magog, and the Messiah

This apparent prohibition of "calculating the End" seems to be contradicted by another Rabbinical saying. After a person has finished their Earthly life, they are asked three questions at Judgement: 1. Did you set aside daily Torah study time? 2. Did you do business faithfully and honestly? 3. Did you look forward to (anticipate) the Redemption?

The third question implies that we SHOULD be looking forward to the Redemption. So how is that different from calculating when it will be? I would think that making such calculations is an even greater fulfillment of anticipating the redemption!

I would like to suggest two answers. Firstly, to look forward to something and to predict it are not the same. Making predictions that don't pan out can be, at best, embarrassing, and at worst, catastrophic. The Messianic fervor of the mid-1600s peaked with the advent of Shabatei Zvi, who claimed to be it. When he failed, and was forced to convert to Islam, there was much trauma and many tragic repercussions within the fabric of Jewish life. A teacher of mine once quoted a teacher of his who said, "Those who tell, don't know, and those who know, don't tell."

The second answer is more personal. The most dramatic, graphic and, frankly, terrifying account of the pre-Messianic world is the battle of Gog and Magog in Ezekiel. The destruction described, the earthquake that will bring down every wall, the fires and plagues don't give on that warm and fuzzy feeling, to say the least.

And yet, there seems to be a silver lining here. That lining is implicit in what is blatantly absent in this whole account: the IDF. The US Army. NATO. Or whichever military serves the civilized world at that time, whenever it will be. (Yes, this could be hundreds of years away. Those who tell, don't know, etc...)

In other words, God is fighting this fight for us through the forces of nature (earthquakes, plagues). We are passive, unable to really influence the course of this history. I find that tremendously reassuring. After all, we have been waiting to see God do the righting in the world. Then we know it will last. Then the world will be changed forever. When man does it, it's temporary at best.

The phrase used for the third question of Judgement is "Tzipita", or, did you look forward to the Redemption. There are two words used for looking to the future in our liturgy. One is Mabit, which means to look. The other is tzofe, our word, which implies more. It implies seeing the future evolving from the present. A high overlook is called a tatzpit, a place where one is tzofe, is looking out from here to there.

In our daily services is a prayer called Kaddish. The theme of this prayer is the fixing of the world. It as inspired by a phrase from the story of Gog and Magog, "I will be exalted and sanctified." Thus, it begins "May His name be exalted and sanctified." Our sages add that when one responds to the Kaddish with the communal reply "May his Name be blessed, etc.." with all one's intention, they merit great reward. Why so?

Because Redemption comes not from military force, nor from excessive passivity. It comes when we the people make the world ready for it, each fixing our own little corner. By reciting that verse with all our heart, we commit ourselves to that mission. We bring the Redemption a little bit closer by our daily good deeds, kindnesses, morality and faith. Whatever the Messianic era will be, we try to live it in our peaceful and kind relationships and our steadfast faith.

Thus, in order to answer the third question in the affirmative, we will have need to ascend to a height that enables us to see the world after Redemption has transformed it. What does climbing this height entail? What we just described, living a life of spirituality and dedication to fixing our corners of the world.

So calculating the End can lead to both pitfalls. If, by calculating, we mean someone trying to manipulate the Redemption through military might, as a strategic plan, Gog and Magog shows us that it is not so. It is God's doing, and perhaps the rotting bones the sages warn of are the result of the Gogian upheavals. On the other side, if the calculator is simply trying to see when it's going to happen but is not prepared to do anything to help it along, their bones will rot from waiting. We must anticipate the Redemption in our behavior and our commitment.

So let's all dedicate ourselves to improving the world on God's terms. Kindness, faith, morality. That's the way to go.

Praying in Hebrew or in English

This is both a question of Jewish law and of common sense. The sages have already made clear that one may pray in any language, as long as one understands that language. The exception to this rule is Hebrew, which has unique spiritual efficacy. One may pray in Hebrew even if they do not understand it. Hebrew is the language that the Torah is in, and which the sages composed the prayers. Everything else is a translation.

So Jewish law truly leaves it to the preference of the worshiper.

Enter common sense. A four hour prayer service spent being mystified by language that one does not understand can be a painful experience. Certainly one should preferably utter prayers in English that can be said with sincerity and clarity. On the other hand, to completely disconnect from the Hebrew prayers in progress is to be somewhat distanced from the community. There must be an appropriate formula for compromise.

I suggest the following: the recitation of the Shema, the Jewish proclamation of faith, should be read in Hebrew. All of the Congregational singing and responses should be done in Hebrew. One should join together with the congregation as much as possible.

The silent devotion can be done in English. It is, after all, the centerpiece of all prayer. I feel strongly that knowing what one is saying is the only way for a true religious experience. Similarly, some of the liturgical poems that the congregation recites silently should be said in English if one does not understand the Hebrew.

We must always keep the main goal in front of our eyes. That goal is to have an uplifting holiday, where the synagogue service is filled with beauty and meaning. Most synagogues will have a Cantor with a beautiful voice and a fine selection of melodies. People will be dressed well, the sanctuary will be decorated for the holiday. The congregation will be friendly and welcoming. All of the elements will be in place for a fantastic religious experience. Our goal must be to use that to transform ourselves for the better.

The best thing I can suggest beyond all this is preparation. Take some time to familiarize yourself with the holiday prayer book. Read through some of the prayers in advance. Learn their history, understand the structure of the synagogue service. Know what is happening in the silent devotion, in the Cantor's repetition, at the Torah reading, at the shofar service and in Musaf.

Saturday night we begin the high holiday season with the Selichot midnight service. It's a great opportunity to become accustomed to making prayer meaningful. I wish you all much success and happiness in the coming year.