Former Shaliach in Washington (2003-4) and Memphis (2010-12)
Currently CFO, Torah MiTzion
And Not a Word About Aliyah
This week's parsha focuses on a word we are all familiar with – Aliyah. But not the term as it is used today. So forget about the contemporary usage of the word, we are not going to be talking about that at all.
While the root עלה has appeared previously in the Torah, in this week’s story, of the sin of the spies, it is a thematic word, and at first glance would be translated as 'ascend'.
Moshe sent the spies to the Land of Canaan, and he said to them:
עֲלוּ זֶה בַּנֶּגֶב, וַעֲלִיתֶם, אֶת-הָהָר ascend (alu) through the south, and ascend (va'alitem) the mountain. Later, 'They ascended to the land, they ascend to Chevron'. Later, Calev tried to convince the people not to give up and says עלה נעלה; Let us surely ascend!
On the other hand, the spies describe what they did not as ascending, but rather as coming – באנו אל הארץ. Even more so, when they use the term of Aliyah, they use the negative: לֹא נוּכַל לעלות – we cannot ascend. So Yehoshua and Calev are constantly telling them to ascend, to לעלות, but the spies (and the people) refuse.
But what does the term ’ascend’ mean? Obviously we are not talking about a description of altitude. Looking throughout the Tanach, we’ll find the verb in different contexts.
- Leaving Egypt – Pharaoh subjugates the Jews because he fears that they will ascend from the land – ועלה מן הארץ.
- In the book of Joshua the verb is often used in a military context, regarding conquering a city; Am Yisrael ascend cities to attack and defeat them.
And that was the difference between Calev and Yehoshua and the other 10 spies. The spies, upon seeing the inhabitants of the land became afraid, they doubted their (and G-d’s) ability to conquer the land and thus became disheartened. They lost the drive, the will to push through the difficulties that lay ahead.
Calev says: עלה נעלה let us surely ascend, and we shall overcome them. The psychological difference between Calev and the spies is what made the difference.
So we would think that the lesson to be learnt is that of perseverance, of the willingness to make an utmost effort. That if we try hard enough, if we want it enough, we can achieve any goal we set our minds on. Countless Hollywood movies have been filmed based on that pretext.
But the next story proves the exact opposite – the story of the Maapilim. Upon hearing the decree that the nation must wander the desert for 40 years, some of the people do what for all intents and purposes looks like complete Teshuva. They will not give up. They say הננו ועלינו we are prepared, and we will ascend. There! They said the magic word! They got it! They even symbolically ascend the mountain (even though geographically that doesn’t make sense) to enter Israel… and what happens? They are all killed! That seems counter to what we just said, doesn’t it? Here they are, rectifying the sin of the spies and showing their willingness to overcome, to לעלות, and yet they fail.
What happened? Why didn’t they succeed?
This is a message that we don’t always hear. They did do teshuva! They did understand their mistake. From a psychological point of view the Maapilim are heroes. But this is not a Hollywood movie and sometimes good intentions are not enough. Despite what we see in the movies, even if you do your best, no matter how hard you try, you cannot succeed without one more element – Hashem’s help.
Hashem told the Maapilim not to go, that they would not succeed. All the good intentions in the world didn’t help. We also need the humility to accept G-d’s will, even if we don’t like it.
So we have here a dual message
First – we need to be willing to לעלות, to make the effort. To trust ourselves and Hashem that we can succeed.
But also we learn a second message: When we set our goals, when we choose where to concentrate our efforts and what mountaintop will we conquer next, we have to ask ourselves if by achieving that goal we will be ascending or not. Choosing the wrong goal, climbing the wrong mountain, can lead to destruction.
So as we map out our next summit we should ask ourselves – where does Hashem want us to go? If we make the right choice, then we will surely ascend, it will be a true Aliyah.