Shabbat Shelach-Lecha 5779, 22nd June 2019
If you were going to a foreign country what might you bring back to symbolise your visit? Nowadays, we might bring back a souvenir, or a particular food we can’t get at home, or some clothing. We would also bring back photos of people as well as places. What we bring reflects our values and tastes.
When the twelve spies came back from Canaan they also had to make a choice about what to bring back. They couldn’t bring back photos so they had to bring back something that represented the land for them. They chose to bring back an enormous bunch of grapes together with pomegranates and figs. They wanted to say ‘the land is fruitful. We can grow enormous fruits and be prosperous and well-fed.’ But they also wanted to say, ‘Everything about this land is enormous - including its inhabitants. So we will not be able to conquer it, as we are small compared to the inhabitants.’
Joshua and Caleb, though, had a different view. According to the great biblical commentator Rashi, whilst most of the spies were busy cutting the bunch of grapes, Caleb visited Hebron where the Patriarchs and Matriarchs were buried. Rather than bringing back fruit, he wanted to bring back a spiritual memory. He could see beyond the size of the crops and the people to a land which had meaning for the Jewish people, where they had a deep spiritual connection, and which represented the promise God gave to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob long years ago.
It is easy to see the material when we look at a foreign country. The spiritual is much less tangible. We have to actively seek it, just as Caleb went to seek out the spiritual in the land of Canaan. But ultimately, it is the spiritual that matters. The early Zionists, even the secular ones, did not return to the land of Israel because of its material benefits. In fact, there were very few material benefits. It was an arid, uncultivated land with mosquito-infested swamps. Rather, they returned because of the link they felt with our past. It was the home of the Jewish people, however inhospitable it might be, and they were determined, as the Zionist slogan went, ‘livnot u’lehibanot’ - to build it and to be built by it.
A home is not measured by material prosperity. Rather, it is the spirit that pervades it that matters. Bhutan is frequently cited as one of the happiest countries in the world. It is hardly prosperous but it has a strong sense of togetherness and equality. That is something that has been lost in so many parts of the world. Success is measured in terms of GDP and growth, viewed only in monetary terms. This has reached such extremes in the UK that we are considering measuring the success of a university degree by what graduates earn. Never mind their intellectual development, their thinking skills, their opening up to the world of ideas. Above all, never mind that some of them might want to contribute to society in compassionate ways, such as social work, teaching or nursing, which pay little but bring other rewards. It is becoming increasingly clear, too, that in the current climate change emergency we have to think about our economy in other ways, moving away from production and consumption to a more sustainable economic model. Part of this will be a move towards a more equal society. In our country we have billionaires whose income continues to increase and people who have literally nothing at all, sleeping on the streets and being unable to feed their children. When we value only the material, we divide the world into the successful, who make money, and the unsuccessful who deserve to be poor. Israel, too, is an unequal society. It has moved a long way from the vision of its founders of an equal society. It has lost its spiritual moorings, a sense that it is in the land to build a society based on Jewish values of justice and compassion. When a Prime Minister who is being investigated on corruption charges is re-elected, it is clear that something has gone wrong.
Somehow, we have to readjust our compass. We have to realise that what matters is not the material wealth of a country but how that wealth is shared for the benefit of all its inhabitants. What would a visitor to the UK choose to symbolise their visit to the UK? And what would we wish them to choose? Would it be something material, a sign of the affluence of the few, or something less tangible, something representing the reputed British spirit of fairness and support for the underdog? The ten spies brought back an enormous bunch of grapes. But ultimately, Caleb’s vision prevailed and the Children of Israel entered the land, determined to build there a country worthy of their ancestors. The vision did not endure once and for all but it was never lost. It can be restored, as it has in the past. Let us keep that vision alive and make it a reality once again.