Rav Baruch Winetraub
Former Rosh Kollel in Toronto (2011-2014)
Currently Community Rabbi at Mevazer Tzion, Tel Mond and Ram in Yeshivat Orot Shaul,
“If G-d want us” – Why ‘if’?
• Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, in his Haketav Vehakabbalah, claims that the Hebrew word ‘Im’ (if) can sometimes mean “in truth” (see Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, BaChodesh 11).
• Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains the conditional to mean “If we are deserving, then G-d will take us”.
• Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (Ohr haChaim) suggests that the two righteous spies used this language cunningly, so the people would think that they were adding to the arguments of the other spies, and therefore let them continue speaking.An innovative fourth approach is hinted at by the Targum Yonatan, who translates these words as follows: “If G–d’s Will will be within us, it will bring us to this land…” (the word ‘Banu’ understood as “be within us”). This novel reading turns the tables; instead of understanding the ‘if’ conditional as referring to G-d, it is now directed at the people: Can we incorporate G-d’s Will into our own?Such an incorporation of G-d’s desire is crucial, for without it, one is not really committed to the cause. First, it is just too easy to abandon something if one was never really invested in the first place. But the dangers of nonidentification run even deeper. As many studies have shown, confidence depends, to an important degree, on one’s sense of being in control of his destiny. For example, it is much easier to drive fast when you are the one sitting in the driver’s seat, than if you are watching the speedometer needle climb while seated in the passenger seat –regardless of who is the driver.
It seems to me that with the conditional ‘if’ the two spies hoped to stimulate real commitment. The sway the ten spies had on the nation, they felt, was made possible by the detachment the people felt from their mission and destination.The Children of Israel did not feel like real agents in this voyage to the promised land; instead, they had been taken out of Egypt, had been given the Torah, and then had been made to travel in the desert. They had not yet taken an active role, making their own decisions, calling their own shots.
Yehoshua and Kalev demanded that they do just that – pronounce that they are not merely a trailing cargo dragged after the clouds of glory, but rather they are a people with a sense of destiny and purpose.Alas, this was too late, and perhaps too little. The people, used to being slaves in Egypt and to being led by G-d and His faithful servant in the desert were not able to shoulder the responsibility of their own destiny. Instead, upon hearing the two spies’ report they projected it on G-d. Unprepared to pronounce – or even to contemplate – their own will, they thought they heard Yehoshua and Kalev asking about G-d’s Will. Tragically, in their mind, the question was distorted: not “Do you want to join G-d?”, but “Does G-d want to join you?” Thus, what should have been an empowering move only contributed to the feelings of doubt and fear.
The end is well known: our forefathers needed to wander for forty years in the desert, partially as a punishment and partially as a long course in self reliance. (See Guide for the Perplexed 3:32). But the lesson of the Spies’ question is clear for us, in our own generation: “Ask not what G-d can and would do for you, ask what you can do for the service of G-d.”