Making Sense of the Sedra: Sh’lach
Have you ever noticed a tendency to balk at authority and be reluctant to do something just because someone told you to do it? Perhaps you have happily volunteered your services, and yet as soon as it became expected, you thought again? If you recognise yourself in this description, you are not alone.
We usually assume that doing a good deed voluntarily is preferable to acting out of obligation, but is that truly so? There is a little-known episode in this week’s Torah portion Sh’lach which questions this predication by highlighting authority and control.
On the heels of the famous story of the spies occurs the interesting incident of the Ma’apilim. The Jewish people had rejected God’s gift of the land of Israel, believing the spies’ negative report, and were in turn sentenced to 40 years of wandering and dying in the desert. Then a small band of activists, named Ma’apilim, regretted the error and decided to act according to the original plan and immediately force their way into Israel. In fact, they were so determined that they ignored Moshe’s repeated objections and his warnings that they would fail (which indeed they did).
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Ma’apilim was also the name of an early Zionist group of pioneers, but whilst they wore the name as a badge of pride in their endurance, the biblical group of Ma’apilim has a somewhat ambivalent reputation. Indeed, one of the many suggested translations for the unusual name Ma’apilim is ‘murky and dark’, hinting at the dubious nature of their endeavour, although the more classic translation is ‘the determined ones’.
So, were these good people repenting for believing the spies, or were they rebelling? More profoundly, what exactly shifted their mindset? Previously they were terrified of entering the land, and yet suddenly, when they were forbidden entry, something prompted them to bravely commit to forcing their way into Israel
Rav Kook sees the error of the Ma’apilim as misguided repentance – an example of our natural desire for control and avoidance of vulnerability. Unlike the majority of the nation, who did not admit any error, the Ma’apilim confessed their mistake, and even desired to actively make amends. However, this is the point of murkiness: true repentance means admitting vulnerability and limitation, but in the very act of supposed repentance, paradoxically the Ma’apilim insisted on their ability to retain control and direct the process according to their timeline—in direct contradiction of God’s instruction.
“Gadol ha-metzuveh ve-oseh mi-mi she-eino metzuveh ve-oseh (greater is one who does good when commanded, than one who does so without being commanded)” (Talmud Kiddushin 31a) means that doing something when obliged can make one into a better person than purely voluntary activity. Overcoming the desire for control and independence, embracing vulnerability and accepting obligation itself help us to grow and improve.
In the words of Viktor Frankl: “Man… must actualise the potential meaning of his life. The more one forgets himself by giving himself to a cause to serve… the more he actualises himself… self-actualisation is only possible as a side-effect of self-transcendence.” (Man’s Search for Meaning)