Photo Credit:
Rabbi Avi Weiss

The episode of the spies indicates that the challenges facing the Jewish people after we left Egypt were not merely a temporary phase. They were built into the very fabric of our nation.

As we left Egypt, the Jews complained that they lacked food and water. They were forced to defend themselves against the vicious Amalekites. Even after they received the Ten Declarations, they built the golden calf at Sinai. Despite experiencing the greatest miracles from God, we were a people constantly struggling to believe in the constant presence of the Divine.


Sensing that these problems were simply the natural reactions of a brand new nation, Moshe comes to Israel’s defense and asks lamah, “why?” “Why, Oh God, should Your anger flare up against Your people whom You have taken out of the land of Egypt?” (Exodus 32:11).

Having left Egypt, Moshe asks God to have patience with the people who have just come out of an experience of slavery.

Indeed, after leaving Sinai, things improved. The Tabernacle was built, and, in the Book of Leviticus the laws of the priesthood and Torah ethics are given. And in the beginning of the Book of Numbers, the Jewish people are counted as they prepare to enter the land of Israel.

Just as they’re ready to enter, we encounter the mi’tonenim, the complainers (Numbers 11:1), For Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, that word comes from ana. It is a cry of woe, a cry of a people that had lost its way.

Here it became clear that the problem the Jewish people faced was no longer a passing one but, rather, one that was endemic to its very core. Soon after, in this week’s Torah portion, the spies are sent out. Later, Korach rebels against Moshe. In the end, the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years.

In the incident of mit’onenim, Moshe cries out with yet another lamah, with another “why?” But this time, he does not question God as he did in the incident of the golden calf. This time he asks, “Why have You done evil to your servant?” (Numbers 11:11). Here, Moshe recognizes the challenges facing the Jewish people would remain for years and Moshe bemoans that he would have to lead the Jewish people like “a nurse carries a suckling” (Numbers 11:12).

There is an axiom that teaches us kol hatchalot kashot – literally, “all beginnings are difficult.” One wonders about the plural “beginnings” – why not “every beginning is difficult”? Normatively, the axiom is understood to relate to many ventures. However, the late Dr. Samuel Belkin once shared with me that this axiom refers to a singular venture. The reality is that there often are many beginnings when we embark on a venture. You start, you fail, you start again, and you fall – but to succeed, one must be tenacious and never give up.

This is true in the institutional setting, it is true in the world of politics, and it is true in our own personal lives. The key is not to let the “why?” paralyze us, but instead recognize the obligation to do our share, step by step, to overcome.


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Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.