This Shabbat, we begin reading the book of Deuteronomy. Every year, this portion is read on Shabbat preceding the Ninth of Av, the singular day of mourning for the destruction of the Temples, as well as calamities throughout Jewish history. According to the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6), it was an event that occurred generations before the Temples that was the first calamity associated with the Ninth of Av. That is the date given for the return of the spies sent to scout the Land of Israel. Ten spies brought back a report that threw the community into a panic that, despite the best efforts of the other two spies, Joshua and Caleb, resulted in the decree that the entire adult generation would not enter the Land of Israel but would perish in the wilderness.
The account of the spies is a significant part of Moses’ opening chapter of the book, a type of historical-theological review of their wanderings. Here, we find one of the most shocking verses of Torah. Moses accuses the people: “Yet you refused to go up, and flouted the command of the Lord your God. You sulked in your tents and said, ‘It is because the Lord hates us that He brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to wipe us out” (1:26-27).
Really? God took us out of Egypt because He hated us?
For a people who spend a lot of time holding up the Exodus as an ultimate expression of covenantal love, this line stops us in our tracks. And yet, in the paralyzed moment of fear as the Israelites are being told to move forward into the unknown, it is possible to see how their perspective would become so twisted as to see the Exodus as a cruel punishment. Rashi uses a folk saying to explain the claim: “That which is in your heart about your friend is what you think is in their heart about you.”
That is, it was not God’s hatred of Israel, but rather Israel hating God.
While Rashi’s logic goes a step too far for me (acknowledging that Israel’s claim of God hating them is not in the original account but only Moses’ interpretation of their reaction), we pause and ask: How often do we fail to appreciate, even spurn, the blessings that are present in our lives?
Immediately following the Fourth of July, as American Jews we often don’t appreciate the singular example of freedom and liberty that this country represents for Jews in the Diaspora. Do we recognize the sacrifices that ensured that freedom in the past and that continue to safeguard it in our own day? Or do we spend our energies searching for examples of intolerance and bigotry, which will always be found if we look hard enough?
As lovers of Israel, do we fully appreciate the miracle and gift that the existence of the modern State of Israel represents? Do we remember well enough the dire consequences of a time when there was no Jewish homeland, when borders of the world closed to those desperate for shelter, doomed for slaughter? Or do we spend our energies on finding and bemoaning every flaw of a nation that — like every other nation — is flawed?
Gratitude and perspective are essential learned traits.
Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in Fulton.