Friday, June 17, 2011

A Parsha Thought - Unintended Consequences

Tomorrow we will read Parshat Shelah, whose central theme is the meraglim, twelve spies sent by Moshe Rabbeinu to reconnoiter Eretz Canaan, as it was then called ("Palestine" is never mentioned in all of Tanakh, not once), and report back on the lay of the land, the quality of its produce and its military vulnerabilities. They returned, according to tradition on the evening of Tisha B'Av, and all but Caleb and Joshua reported that the people were tall and exceptionally strong, and it would not be possible for the Israelites to conquer it. All of the adults cried and sulked, and did not listen to the "minority report" of Caleb and Joshua. God decreed that the people would wander in the wilderness for 40 years and that all of the adults, age twenty and up, were to die in the wilderness. Their children, those born in Egypt but not yet 20, as well as those born and yet to be born in the wilderness, whom their parents and grandparents complained would be booty for the Canaanites, would be the ones to conquer and inherit the land.

We often speak of a "law of unintended consequences," whereby significant decisions have unanticipated results, usually negative ones that bite us on the behind. So, I submit, is the case here. Who was supposed to be punished? The adults, for their lack of faith and confidence in God and their agitation against Moshe Rabbeinu that would reach a climax in Korah's revolt in next week's parsha. But in my estimation it was not the adults who suffered most; it was the teenage boys. The adults knew what they did wrong, so much so that a good deal of them embarked the next day on an unauthorized mission against the Canaanites that failed. But the teenage boys, those who were the same age as me during the Six Day War, had no part in the wrongdoing. They personally witnessed the miracles of the Exodus and the war with Amalek, and all that was happening at that magical time of life when a boy is bursting with male hormones and everything seems possible - the same wonderful confluence that changed me and my contemporaries in 1967. I can imagine those boys taking every opportunity to go outside and spar with blunted weapons to get themselves ready for the battles that they were eager to be part of. And now - they were to be punished for the sins of their parents. Grounded for forty years! To a boy that feels like life in prison. Oh, they would enter Canaan all right, when they would be in their forties and fifties, too old and weak to wield a sword or throw a javelin, militarily useless. Imagine the resentment they must have felt toward their parents for condemning them to such misery. When I was in fourth grade or so, my teacher asked me which of the Ten Commandments is hardest for me to keep, and without hesitation I answered the fifth. If I was asked the same question today, I would give the same answer. Perhaps those teenage boys in the wilderness bequeathed their well-founded resentment to their descendants to the last generation.

At this point one might ask why God did not simply kill off the bad generation at once, or perhaps over one year, and allow the young to enter Canaan right away. Ultimately, of course, we can never know why God does what He does, but we glean a little insight from the Hasidic doctrine of tzimtzum. God shrinks himself, as it were, so we can relate to Him in a confined place, be it physical - the beit mikdash - or intellectal. He established the laws of nature as the "constitution" by which He runs the world, and confines Himself to the natural order most of the time, even when it leads to what we mortals view as unintended consequences. The generation of the wilderness had to die before Canaan could be conquered, but they had to die of natural causes, and that takes time. The boys would not fight, but they would train their sons and, when the time came, share in their sons' joy when they went out, weapons in hand, and conquered their land. And that too is something they bequeathed to future generations. Jews have always endured economic and other hardships in the hope that their children would have it better than they did. And so may it be until Mashiach comes and redeems the world, in our time but, if not, in our children's.

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