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The Parsha in a Nutshell

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks, available to read in full via the left sidebar (or below, if you are viewing this on your phone)

The Lubavitcher Rebbe famously raised the questions we might all ask about the story of the spies. How could ten of the spies have come back with the report that they should not try to enter the land of Canaan? How could they say: “We cannot win, the people are stronger than us...”? These people had seen with their own eyes how God had sent the Ten Plagues that defeated Egypt, the strongest and most long-lasting of all the empires of the ancient world. Egypt was far stronger than the Canaanites, the Perrizites, and any other minor kingdoms that they would have to confront next. What is more, the people of the land were now terrified of the Israelites. Why then were the spies afraid of them?

The questions are straightforward, but the answer the Rebbe gave was utterly unexpected. The spies were not afraid of failure, he said. They were afraid of success.

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What was their situation in the midbar? They were eating manna from heaven. They were drinking water from a miraculous well. They were surrounded by Clouds of Glory. They were camped around the new and holy Mishkan. They were in continuous contact with the Shechinah. Never had a people lived so close to God. What would be their situation if they entered the land? They would have to fight battles, maintain an army, create an economy, farm the land, worry about whether there would be enough rain to produce a crop, and thousands of other distractions that come from living in the world.

What would happen to their closeness to God when they were busy with chores and jobs and regular life? If they stayed in the desert, they could spend their entire lives learning Torah, lit by the radiance of the Divine. Whereas in their own land, they would be just one more nation in a world of nations, with the same kind of economic, social, and political problems that every nation has to deal with.

The spies were not afraid of failure. They were afraid of success. This was a mistake made by very holy men who wanted to spend their lives in the closest possible proximity to God. What they did not understand was that God seeks, in the chassidic phrase, “a dwelling in the lower worlds”. One of the great differences between Judaism and other religions is that while others seek to lift people to heaven, Judaism seeks to bring heaven down to earth.

God wanted Bnei Yisrael to create a model society where human beings were not treated as slaves, where rulers were not worshipped as demigods, where human dignity was respected, where law was impartially administered to rich and poor alike, where no one was destitute, no one was abandoned to isolation, no one was above the law, and no realm of life was without morality. That requires a society, and a society needs a land. It requires an economy, an army, fields and flocks, labour, and enterprise. All these, in Judaism, become ways of bringing the Shechinah into the shared spaces of our collective life.

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Jewish spirituality lives in the midst of life itself, the life of society and its institutions. To create it, we have to battle with two kinds of fear: fear of failure and fear of success. Fear of failure is common; fear of success is rarer but no less debilitating. Both come from the reluctance to take risks.

Faith is the courage to take risks. It is not certainty; it is the ability to live with uncertainty. It is the ability to hear God saying to us, as He said to Avraham, “Walk on ahead of Me.”

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  1. What are the challenges of staying connected to God while living in the “real world”?
  2. Why might God ask us to live this harder life?
  3. How can we “bring heaven down to earth”? 

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A Story for Shabbat

Just Do It

by Joanne Greenaway

In 1999, Marc Weinberg z"l went to see Rabbi Sacks with a vision to breathe new life into LSJS, formerly Jews’ College, with innovative adult learning. Rabbi Sacks not only listened, he encouraged Marc and his young colleagues to create a dynamic centre. Having led it himself, he had a deep connection to the organisation, but he now empowered the next generation to renew it, always on hand to lend support, think creatively, and boost morale. 

This was one of countless stories of people approaching him with the germ of an idea for an educational initiative, a book, a community, or a new school they wanted to open. Rather than point out what may be the obstacles in their path, the practical issues that they would confront or the similar initiatives already in place, he would see the beauty in their diverse ideas and passion projects. 

So much of Jewish life is thriving today because of this. Schools and educational centres and initiatives have flourished. He believed in people. He saw the bigger picture and motivated others to believe in it and in themselves, to take responsibility and to create. That way he created leaders. 

Judaism seeks to bring heaven down to earth. Rabbi Sacks helped so many to bring God into what they were doing, to see it as part of a collective vision. He challenged us to have faith in God and in ourselves, and through his leadership, we have achieved more than we thought we were capable of. 

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The new series of Covenant & Conversation: Family Editions features one new voice each week. We hope that this will further illuminate the ideas of Rabbi Sacks and encourage others to continue these conversations with the next generation, as we share the stories and ideas of Rabbi Sacks scholars.

Joanne Greenaway is Chief Executive of the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS), and she is also a Sacks Scholar.

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A Closer Look

Jo Greenaway reflects on some of the deeper lessons she learnt from Rabbi Sacks.

What was your main takeaway from ‘Two Kinds of Fear’? 

Believing in others helps us believe in ourselves and our ability to achieve remarkable things.

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What is your favourite quote from Rabbi Sacks’ essay this week, and why?

 “Fear of failure is common; fear of success is rarer but no less debilitating. Both come from the reluctance to take risks. Faith is the courage to take risks.” 

Caleb and Joshua, the spies who brought back positive reports from their reconnaissance mission, had faith despite the risks in conquering the land. Like so many of our leaders they were prepared to see the glass half full, to relish the challenge and have a growth mindset.   

What impact did Rabbi Sacks have on your life?  

Rabbi Sacks taught me not to be limited by what I see around me but to build the community and society I want to see. Where what we can do meets what is needed in the world, we must play out part. Where others are negative, he told me that all problems could be solved, albeit at the right time. He empowered me to be involved with resolving intractable Get cases. He shared insights with me from cases he had resolved as Chief Rabbi. He knew there was work to be done and he encouraged me to do it. There would clearly be many failures but there were also important successes. He inspired me to believe in the importance of the mission and the possibility of fixing things. He motivated me to be part of a vibrant community and to help to grow it for today and for the next generation. 

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Torah Trivia

Question: When else in Tanach were meraglim - spies - sent?  

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Educational Companion

Torah Trivia: this week's answer

There are six times in the Tanach when spies were sent out:

  1. Moshe sent spies to scout out Yazer (Bamidbar 21:32).
  2. Yehoshua sent spies before entering Eretz Canaan (Yehoshua 2:1).
  3. Yehoshua sent spies to Ai (Yehoshua 7:2)
  4. Bnai Dan sent spies to scout out their nachalah - their portion in the land (Shoftim 18:2).
  5. David sent spies to verify that Shaul was chasing him (Shmuel 1:26:4).
  6. Avshalom sent spies to gather support for his rebellion (Shmuel 2:15:10).
Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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