Former Shaliach in Washington (2003-4) and Memphis (2010-12)
This is an article about Aliyah, but not the term as it is used today.
While the root “aleh” has appeared previously in the Torah, in this week’s story of the sin of the spies, it is a thematic word. Usually the word is translated as ‘ascend’.
Moshe sent the 12 spies to search the Land of Canaan, and he said to them:
“Alu zeh banegev va’alitem et hahar” – ascend (alu) through the south, and ascend (va’alitem) the mountain
They ascended to the land. They ascend to Chevron.
Later, after 10 of the spies give their evil report and the people voice their fears, Calev tried to convince the people not to give up and says: “alo na’aleh”, Let us surely ascend!
Contrary to Calev, the spies describe what they did not as ascending, but rather as coming – “Banu el ha’aretz”. Even more so, when they use the term of Aliyah, they use in in the negative form:
“lo nuchal la’alot”, we cannot ascend.
So Moshe and Calev are constantly telling them to ascend, to “la’alot”, but the spies (and the people) refuse.
But what does the term ’ascend’ mean? Obviously, we are not talking about a geographical description of altitude.
Throughout the Tanach the same root verb appears in different contexts:
In the story of the Exodus – Pharaoh justifies subjugating the Hebrews because he fears – “vealah min ha’aretz” – they (Am Yisrael) will ascend from the land.
In the book of Joshua the verb is often used in a military context, regarding conquering a city.
In all these cases, it seems that the accurate interpretation of the word is – ‘to overcome an obstacle, to confront someone or something and succeed’.
Not necessarily a physical difficulty, but rather a mental one. The psychological concentration of effort, the readiness of purpose, and the directed application of strength.
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: “alo na’aleh” let us surely ascend, and we shall overcome them. He is focused on his mission and confident he will succeed. The difference between Calev and the spies is not in their professional military analysis, but rather psychological.
So, we would think that the lesson to be learnt is that of perseverance, of the willingness to make an utmost effort. We learn that if we are confident and driven, we can achieve our goal.
However, the next story in our Parsha, that of the Ma’apilim, seems to prove the exact opposite. Upon hearing the decree that the nation must wander the desert for 40 years, some of the people do what seems at first glance to be complete Teshuva. They choose to not give up. They say “hinenu ve’alinu” – ‘We are prepared, and we will ascend’. It is no coincidence that they use the word ‘ascend’. They are even symbolically described as ascending the mountain (even though geographically they actually had to descend) to enter Israel. Much to our surprise, the outcome of their ‘teshuva’ is a complete defeat.
The injustice seems hard to grasp. The people are rectifying the sin of the spies and showing their willingness to overcome, to “la’alot”, and yet they fail.
What happened? Why didn’t they succeed?
Because there is an additional lesson they did not learn.
They did understand their mistake. From a psychological point of view, the Ma’apilim are heroes. However, 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 Hashem’s help
Hashem told the Ma’apilim not to go. They would not succeed. All the good intentions in the world cannot counter G-d’s will. We need the humility to accept G-d’s decree, even if we don’t like it.
So the story of the spies offers us a dual message
First – we need to be willing to “la’alot”, to make the effort. To trust ourselves and Hashem that we can succeed.
However, we also learn a second message. When we set our goals, when we choose where to concentrate our efforts and what mountain top 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 surely be an Aliyah.