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Parashat Shelach Lecha: A Zionist Response to the Pessimism of the Spies

Shalom. In this week’s Torah portion of Shelach Lecha, we have the sad story of the “meraglim,” of the spies. As you know, Calev and Yehoshua gave a positive report. The other ten spies gave a negative report. Unfortunately, the Jewish people listened to the negative report. They said, “We cannot enter the Land of Israel.” God then declared that they will be punished. They will die in the desert and not enter the land of Israel.

“And on the morrow, the next morning, they went up to the top of the mountain, though neither the Lord’s ark of the covenant nor Moses stirred from the camp and the Amalekites and the Canaanites who dwelt in that hill country came down and dealt with them a shattering blow at Hormah.”

What does the word “vayapilu” mean? We’re not entirely certain. Rashi says that they went up with chutzpah. Onkelos says “vayashiu,” they did something evil. The simple meaning as Ibn Ezra says is, “vayapilu,” they went up. They went up the mountain and were defeated.

We skip forward 3,000 years to the Israeli composer, poet, writer Levin Kipnis. He makes aliya in 1913 from Ukraine at the age of 23. In 1919 he writes the song Hama’apilim (Listen to the song).

What are the words of the song?

To the top of the mountain.

To the top of the mountain.

Who will stop those who are being redeemed from captivity?

On the other side of the mountain the Land of Israel hints at us, winks at us.

Go up. Go up to the top of the mountain.

Go up. Go up. To the top of the mountain go up.

Brothers go up. Brothers go up and so on and so forth.

In other words, he took the negative concept of “vayapilu, from our portion and turned it into a positive concept of Zionism. Let us go up together and build the land of Israel.

A few short years later the British  Mandate declared in the 1930s that Jews are not allowed to enter the land of Israel and then began the movement of illegal immigration, so-called aliyah bet, and the Ma’apilim between 1934 and 1948 clandestinely entered the land of Israel. Some 115,000 Jews entered the Land of Israel. They helped in the War of Independence. Eight hundred of them fell in the War of Independence and of course they helped build the State of Israel.

In other words, Levin Kipnis and the Ma’apilim took the negative concept from our weekly portion and turned it into a positive concept of building, of going up and of redeeming the Land of Israel.

There’s no question that all of us in our personal lives have challenges, have mountains to climb. And certainly on the national and international level this year, in the past year in Israel we had the Corona, the Covid epidemic. We had the war with Hamas. We had the terrible tragedy at Mount Meron. We have our problems of government. They seem insurmountable.

We can follow the example of B’nai Yisrael in the desert and after the fact try and do something or we can follow the example of Levin Kipnis and of the Ma’apilim, which is to look at the challenge, face the challenge and climb the mountain.

Let us follow then the example of Calev and Yehoshua in this week’s parasha where they say, “Verily we shall go up and inherit the land for we can meet all of the challenges,” or in the words of Levin Kipnis, “hapilu, hapilu. El rosh hahar hapilu, Go up, go up. To the top of the mountain go up.”

Shavua tov from Schechter.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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