Jewish survival and continuity seem to be a constant theme throughout much of contemporary writing: “Will there be Jews in this country by the middle of the century?” “Will we have Jewish grandchildren?” Yet I have been hearing these questions throughout nigh on 40 years in the rabbinate.
In a wonderful essay, “Israel: the Ever-Dying People”, Simon Rawidowicz describes how those questions have been asked by Jewish leaders throughout history. Yet he argues that we are somehow an “ever-dying people” who continue to confound the doom and gloom merchants and the demographers predicting our imminent demise.
Complacency is, of course, cheap and easy. The anxiety of the past was about a diminution in the quality of Jewish life. In our time it seems to be about the quantity: Will there be enough Jews physically to make a viable Jewish life possible? This anxiety is fuelled, obviously, by the Shoah.
Walking around Vilnius, “the Jerusalem of the North”, with a synagogue group recently, we had to imagine – few traces survive – what had been the splendour that was Lithuanian Jewry.
Hence talk of the richness of Jewish life before 1933. Of course there was a richness to it, but also, no doubt, a lot that was less than attractive. In the end it was primarily the pull of a better life that led Jews to leave Eastern Europe in such numbers, rather than the push of persecution.
The Golden Age always seems to be in the past:
There’s a shadow hanging over me,
And I believe in yesterday.
We know the syndrome: summers were always perfect in our youth, you could leave your front door open and walk the streets safely at night. A glorious, golden past. And of course, pretty much bunkum.
fraid of the future we fixate on the past, where things seemed to be certain, secure and clear-cut. None of the uncertainties, the grey areas of the present or the future which make life so difficult.
But apprehension about the future is not an argument for returning to that Golden Age in the past. For it is a future made out of our current fears, wishes and desires. We reconstruct a Jewish past based on less, rather than more, knowledge and project back into it what happens now. We populate that past with fantasy figures. Am I the only Jew whose grandfather wasn’t a rabbi? Because so many people I meet tell me that “my grandfather was a rabbi.”
So what was the sin of the spies? What was so wrong with what they did, so radical that those who left Egypt had to be punished by not being allowed to enter the Promised Land? The Torah is by no means clear and commentators have argued about this over the ages.
The spies commit a Freudian slip which reveals their fears and anxieties. They recognise that it is a land flowing with milk and honey, but add, “We saw giants there and we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes and so we must have seemed in their eyes” (Num, 13:32–33). It’s one thing to say that the inhabitants were like giants and we felt small in relation to them. That could be understood as a sort of objective statement of how they felt. But it’s that “so we must have seemed in their eyes” which is so revealing.
For it speaks volumes about what they were really feeling. It’s a subconscious projection of their worst fears, their lack of trust in themselves, their lack of faith in the future, their denial of the very purpose of the Exodus itself. It’s that which is most shocking.
And it’s no coincidence that they clamour to go back to Egypt. It’s not just the physical Egypt but “Egypt” as metaphor for everything they have rejected and left behind. Egypt is some mythic past where things seemed safe and secure.
Of the twelve spies, only Joshua and Caleb have no doubts about going into the Promised Land: we can do it. In Hebrew their statement is extremely emphatic: yachol nochal – almost untranslatable, something like “we really can do it” (Num. 13:30). Had the majority of the spies prevailed, death would have been the inevitable outcome – death back in Egypt or in the desert.
We Jews are, as the prophet Zechariah says, assirei tikvah (Zech. 9:12), prisoners of hope, tied irrevocably to the future, not to the past, nor the present. There might have been Golden Ages in the past, but the real Golden Age is always in the future – where it has to be – beckoning us on, reluctantly, kicking and screaming maybe, but ever forwards and onwards.
Rabbi Colin Eimer
Sh’arei Tsedek: North London Reform Synagogue
(Formerly known as Southgate & District Reform Synagogue)
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.