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Rabbi Francis Nataf

More often than not, disagreement is just a reflection of differing starting assumptions. For example, one person may take a long-term view towards economic growth, whereas another is more concerned about the short term, echoing John Maynard Keynes’ famous quip that in the long term we are all dead! Still a third will challenge the value of economic growth altogether, in view of the social and cultural disruption that it inevitably brings. Hence once such individuals get beyond their root conceptions about what is best for society and speak about the effectiveness of a leader or policy, they are no longer talking with each other, but past each other.

Unfortunately, the latter is what characterizes most of what goes for debate today. But lest we blame this completely on the times, we should note that this is really nothing new. Looking at Parshat Shelach, one sees that the two sides of the debate about the Land of Israel were essentially talking past each other as well.

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Netziv (14:7) focuses on Calev’s rebuttal that the land was really “very, very good.” He observes that on the face of it, this hardly addresses the claim of the other scouts who – while already acknowledging its agricultural bounty – proclaimed it to be “a land that consumes its inhabitants.” According to the rabbis, that claim was the result of being privy to a highly unusual amount of funerals upon their tour. It appears that all twelve scouts understood what they saw in the context of what was already presented in the Book of Vayikra – namely, that Israel is a land that does not tolerate evildoers.

For most of the scouts, seeing with their own eyes what had up until now only been theory was very disturbing. The Jews had already been punished in the desert for their sins on more than one occasion. For this to be a continuous situation – or possibly even worse – was not their idea of a good land. Why conquer it, if they would meet the same fate as the Canaanites before them? In retrospect, they suddenly realized that Egypt was much more in line with what they thought of as a good land, and that is why they now campaigned to return to it. As opposed to Israel, Egypt uncomplicatedly provided its inhabitants with continuous bounty, without “getting involved in their personal affairs.” And assuming that this is how one defines a good land, not only was the Land of Israel not very, very good; it was not good at all.

But Calev and Yehoshua did not buy into the worldview that gives birth to such an assessment. In line with various midrashic statements about the ‘very good’ on the sixth day of creation as a reference to the creation of negative things, such as death and the evil impulse, Netziv explains that spiritual goodness and the physical goodness of a place like Egypt do not usually go hand in hand. For one, a person that only sees good will never recognize it as such; as good only exists relative to our awareness that something less good also exists. Moreover, explains Netziv, if we want to improve our behavior, we should welcome feedback, not avoid it. And so, a land that punishes evil and rewards good is to be seen as really quite good.

Accordingly, the reason Calev and Yehoshua didn’t respond to the other spies is because there was nothing they could say to them. Rather, they addressed themselves to the Jewish people. Choosing the words carefully, they showed that there was another way to look at things – a way more in line with their calling as a holy nation.

It is hard to know how to relate to the Land of Israel today. On the one hand, we live in a time when God is hidden. Hence we do not see nearly the same level of intervention as that witnessed by the spies and throughout the Biblical period. On the other hand, one cannot help but sense that there is still a certain amount of Divine providence intrinsic to living in this holy land – and especially since the Jewish people has come back to reclaim it. So while we all would like to see peace in the near future, perhaps we should not expect this land which has already given us so much bounty to give us only good, when we still have so many problems – both as individuals and as a nation – to fix. And specifically because of that, we can acknowledge that it remains a very, very good land.

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Rabbi Francis Nataf (www.francisnataf.com) is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker and the author of four books of contemporary Torah commentary. His parshah column appears weekly in The Jewish Press. Rabbi Nataf is also the author of, "Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Leviticus"