Prophecy in the Twenty-First Century: Parsha Shelach

There is a controversy currently underway in the aftermath of the most recent Gaza War. On the one hand, there are Israelis who accuse Netanyahu and Gantz of cowardice, of holding back and of failing, once and for all, to go into Gaza, dislodging Hamas, disarming the Palestinians and eliminating Gaza as a threat to Israel. From the left wing, “progressives” are denouncing the military response altogether. The seven missiles sent against Jerusalem that triggered the war were just responses to the excess use of force by the Israeli police in the Al-Aqsa Mosque as well as to the other practices, such as in Sheikh Jarrah of evicting Palestinians from their homes.  Israelis did not use enough force. Israelis used far too much force. Which portrait is correct?

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg in his writings has stressed two very different roles for the prophet:

  1. As God’s spokesperson, to deliver God’s message to the Jewish community;
  2. To serve as spokesperson of his people and advocate on their behalf before God.

The two roles have the same standard of measurement – the Covenant God made with the people of Israel. When addressing the people, the prophet must remind them of their obligations under the Covenant and the consequences to them if they are not fulfilled. When addressing God as an advocate for his people, the prophet must remind God of His obligations to the people under the Covenant, however wayward the people have been, and the consequences, this time, both to God and His chosen people if God does not keep His side of the bargain.

As Yitz described it, the great crisis between these two roles came in the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident. And God’s decision – soon retracted – that He was going to abandon the Israelites to their own fate and begin to create a new nation from a core, the core of Moses and his family (Exodus 31:10-14) Moses rejected the offer unequivocally and insisted that God live up to His side of the deal He had made. Moses was sticking to the fate of his people.


י  וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי, וְיִחַר-אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם; וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל.
10 Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of thee a great nation.’
יא  וַיְחַל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהָיו; וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָה יְהוָה יֶחֱרֶה אַפְּךָ בְּעַמֶּךָ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בְּכֹחַ גָּדוֹל וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה.11 And Moses besought the LORD his God, and said: ‘LORD, why doth Thy wrath wax hot against Thy people, that Thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?
יב  לָמָּה יֹאמְרוּ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר, בְּרָעָה הוֹצִיאָם לַהֲרֹג אֹתָם בֶּהָרִים, וּלְכַלֹּתָם, מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה; שׁוּב מֵחֲרוֹן אַפֶּךָ, וְהִנָּחֵם עַל-הָרָעָה לְעַמֶּךָ.12 Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, saying: For evil did He bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from Thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against Thy people.
יג  זְכֹר לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבָדֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לָהֶם בָּךְ, וַתְּדַבֵּר אֲלֵהֶם, אַרְבֶּה אֶת-זַרְעֲכֶם כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמָיִם; וְכָל-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָמַרְתִּי, אֶתֵּן לְזַרְעֲכֶם, וְנָחֲלוּ, לְעֹלָם.13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Thy servants, to whom Thou didst swear by Thine own self, and saidst unto them: I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.’
יד  וַיִּנָּחֶם, יְהוָה, עַל-הָרָעָה, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לְעַמּוֹ.  {פ}14 And the LORD repented of the evil which He said He would do unto His people. {P}

It is not often that we see God repenting for what He had said. This happens again in this week’s parashah. When the spies return from Canaan with the warnings of ten of the twelve spies concerning the wrath and formidable force the Israelites would face if they crossed into Canaan, the people panicked. They trembled to their very toes. And they implored Moses to stop and turn around.

Stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s goin’ down?

There’s battle lines bein’ drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speakin’ their minds
Gettin’ so much resistance from behind

(It’s time we)
Stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s goin’ down?

What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singin’ songs and carryin’ signs
Mostly sayin’, “hooray for our side”

(It’s time we)
Stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s goin’ down?

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away

(We better)
Stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s goin’ down?
(We better)
Stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s goin’ down?
(We better)
Stop, now, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s goin’ down?
(We better)
Stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s goin’ down?

The key verse is the following:

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away

The fear was both of the enemies they faced and of God’s wrath if they hesitated from facing their enemies. That was real paranoia.

Moses had handled God’s wrath with diplomacy. But when he witnessed firsthand, not the people’s fear, but the joy with which they danced when they had turned their backs on God. Moses, in an absolute fury and fit, broke the tablets of the law that he had brought down from the mountain and rebuked the people. Previously, Moses had quietly but firmly stood up to God. This time, he lost it. Furious beyond measure, he gathered the Levites who went through the camp killing 3,000, .5% of the total population. It was a slaughter.

What does Rabbi Greenberg focus on when he came to the returning spies?

In this parashah (as at the Golden Calf), Moses holds up the banner of a religious role model and leader. The prophet is ready to give his life for the people. To be religious is to be ready to give one’s life for others—not to seek exemptions from danger on the grounds of being devoted to Torah. The prophet does not simply judge the people in God’s name. The religious leader brings the people’s needs and concerns to God and, sometimes, asks for different instructions. The prophet does not lay the blame on the people, and he will stand with them and even take punishment with them as he tries to sustain them through failure or loss of nerve.

Moses had learned patience. Moses had learned to understand the people’s fears and to turn them around. But then why did Moses take his wrath out against the spies? Why? After all, they had reported back accurately what they had seen – giants burying their own dead. But they also offered their interpretation that the Israelites were akin to inyenzi, to grasshoppers, compared to the giants. It was not like the extremist Hutu branding the Tutsi as inyenzi who need to be exterminated. The Israelites branded themselves.

They saw but they were blind. They suffered from mindblindness, not in what they saw but how they interpreted what they saw.

What about the present? What about the reports back if the IDF invades Gaza by land? This is a case where the authorities in charge of Gaza declare with their words that the Jews should be eliminated from Palestine, all of Palestine. This was not a case of projection of what they saw into how they were perceived by the giants. They merely took seriously the actual words of Hamas. Further, the Israelites were not afraid of the Palestinians in Gaza but calculated that if they went in with a land force, three consequences would inevitably follow:

  1. They would suffer a significant number of casualties.
  2. Afterwards, they would be burdened with the occupation of Gaza.
  3. The wrath of the world would increase rather than recede as the memory that the Israelis had killed far more Gazans than the Gazans had killed Israelis faded from memory.

The spies who returned from Canaan to advocate no invasion were wrong, not because they saw giants, but because they saw themselves as inyenzi, as grasshoppers. In contrast, the intelligence services that advocated no invasion of Gaza were correct because they acted like true giants and saw no need either to conquer the Palestinians in Gaza and certainly not of exterminating them. Limiting the capacity of Hamas and its allies to kill for another decade was sufficient.

What then is God’s message to the Jewish people in this moment of trial by fire? Hold your fire. Be moderate even when, in the name of human rights and progress, your enemies see you as extremists. Be modest in your goals. How do we know this is the true message of God? We do not. But we do know and can verify that the Israeli intelligence services were not reporting back inaccurately, not only what Hamas and its allies were saying and doing, but reporting accurately. More importantly, the estimate of their own capacities and abilities to respond were more or less accurate. And where they were not, there was a determination to make corrections. The Israelis are not suffering from mindblindnesss when it comes to Gaza.

By and large, Israel behaved appropriately.

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