History Repeats Itself
History repeats itself. I don’t know the origin of that cliché, but I do know that our Sages held a similar point of view. “Ma’aseh avot siman labanim.” What happened with ancestors is often a pattern that their descendants are destined to follow.
The repetitive nature of historical processes seems to be true in the stories of all nations and cultures. This is why historians such as Arnold Toynbee believed that history is cyclical, and they have been able to demonstrate that certain central issues recur repetitively in the history of the human race.
I remember reading for example, in one of Toynbee’s books, of how the lives of many world leaders are characterized by patterns of “withdrawal and return.” Thus, for example, Moses went through a period of withdrawal in the desert of Midian and then returned to Egypt to lead his people out of slavery. Similarly, great figures in the history of Greece, of Rome, of medieval Europe, and of modern Western civilization endured periods of their lives when they were in prison or in other forms of voluntary or forced solitude, and were thus in a stage of “withdrawal.” They then reemerged on the stage of leadership of their people, thereby entering a stage of “return”.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shelach, a pattern is laid down which has been, tragically, repeated all too frequently in the history of our people. I speak of the pattern whereby a major portion of the Jewish leadership is opposed to entering the Land of Israel. Only a small and courageous minority says, “We should go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.” (Numbers 13:30)
This week, we read of the episodes of the spies. These men were a select group of talented and presumably pious individuals. They conducted their risky mission as it was assigned to them. They were to explore the Promised Land and determine the nature of its inhabitants and the nature of the terrain. This was, simply put, a preparation for entering the land, conquering it, and settling it once and for all.
But 10 of the 12 returned totally discouraged. I would say, literally discouraged; that is, their courage was undone. They said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.”
This was only the first, but definitely not the last, time in Jewish history that Jewish leadership was internally torn apart by discord. The event described in this week’s Torah portion is but the first precedent of a recurring pattern in which a few heroic visionaries, Joshua and Caleb, can commit not only to enter the land themselves, but to inspire their followers to do so. But these visionaries, alas, are only part of the pattern. The other part are those leaders who are too cowardly, too cautious, or too blind to lead their people to do all that is necessary to enter and to possess the Holy Land.
During the Babylonian Exile, only unique individuals like Ezra and Nehemiah were made of the same stuff as Joshua and Caleb. And only a small remnant of the Babylonian Exile followed them and returned to the land. The great majority of Jews and the great majority of the Jewish leaders remained behind in Babylon, ignominiously.
So frequently over the ensuing centuries did history repeat itself. Every so often, a pitifully small group of Jews from Persia and Morocco, from France, from the bastions of Hasidism in the Ukraine or at the prodding of the Gaon of Vilna, follow the path advocated by Joshua and Caleb. Against all odds, they do return to the land. But the vast majority of their brethren, sometimes for practical reasons and sometimes for ideological ones, choose to remain behind in the Diaspora. They follow the path of the other ten spies.
Every portion in the Torah has relevance to contemporary Jewish life. This has been the theme of these columns which I have been writing now every week for over two years. But this week’s Torah portion is especially timely.
We live in an age where the ideal of return to Zion, which, after all, is the ideal preached so inspiringly by Joshua and Caleb, is beset by challenges from all sides.
We live in an age where the liberal intellectual community, composed to a great extent of fellow Jews, no longer accepts the ideal of a Jewish homeland for the Jewish people. At the very least, that community is willing to see the Holy Land shared by another people. And there are those of that community who totally delegitimize the notion of a return to Zion.
More troubling to me however are those elements of the observant religious community who are antagonistic to the enterprise of the Jewish people living as a sovereign nation in the land promised to us by the Almighty himself. I know full well that there are legitimate ideological views for or against religious Zionism, and I am certainly cognizant of the faults and flaws of the government of the State of Israel.
But I fail to see how anyone reading this week’s Torah portion cannot be impressed by its central messages: We left Egypt with a promise to inherit a specific land flowing with milk and honey. We had the opportunity to enter that land very soon after the Exodus. We failed to appreciate the opportunity and we lost it. True, we didn’t lose it entirely, and it was only postponed for forty years; the blink of an eye from the perspective of the millennia of Jewish history.
The tragedy of Parshat Shelach transcends this one incident described there. Rather, the narrative of Parshat Shelach establishes a pattern which is repeated too often during our subsequent history: The conflict between foresight and fear, between courage and cowardice, between true faith and weaker faith, becomes an eternal theme in our history down to this very day.
I have come to learn, via the communications I receive from so many of you, dear readers, that you all listen quite attentively to each week’s Torah portion. I challenge you, especially this week, to listen attentively to the narrative of the spies. And when it is over, I am quite confident that you will see the message it sends to our generation. It is the message of Joshua and Caleb. It is the message that says to the entire congregation of the children of Israel:
“The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delight in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it unto us – a land which flows with milk and honey. Only rebel not against the Lord, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us; their defense is removed from over them, and the Lord is with us; fear them not.” (Numbers 14:7-9)