It is only from caring about our past that we gain hope for the future

Numbers 13:1-15:41
Joshua 2:1-24

Shelach, this week’s parashah, presents us with a compelling reason to study Jewish history. We read about the 12 men who were sent to scout out the land of Israel before the nation would attempt to conquer it. Two of them would ultimately distinguish themselves as true leaders of the Jewish people and 10 would give an exaggerated negative report of their findings, which would strike terror into the hearts of the Jews. The 10 spoke of the inevitability of failure in the fight against Israel’s current inhabitants.

In contrast, Joshua and Caleb reminded the people that they had the mightiest Protector. He had cared for their every need, protecting them from their enemies and the elements. Surely, He would do so as they entered Israel.

Rashi, the medieval French commentator, notes that Joshua possessed an indomitable faith because Moses had prayed on his behalf that he be spared if his fellow spies counseled evil, even changing Joshua’s name from Hoshea to Yehoshua, adding the letter yud, which caused his name to mean “may G-d save you from the advice of the spies.” (Numbers 13:16)

Caleb had a different but powerful experience. In their journey through the land, the 12 spies came to the ancient city of Hebron, where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah were buried. Only Caleb stopped to pray there for strength and courage.

Our sages teach that the effect of this encounter with our patriarchs and matriarchs precluded his falling prey to the miserable despair that afflicted the 10 spies. Caleb absorbed confidence in the total power of the One who had been a shield to his ancestors enabling them to be victorious in the challenges they faced. He recalled the Divine promises made to the fathers, and he knew there was no cause for fear because G-d would keep His word.

The Jew who can figuratively leave that burial site unvisited, or think of it without emotion, will never possess the necessary vitality to assure the continuity of our people. Our confidence in and enthusiasm for our future can only be acquired when we reflect on the achievements of our people in the past, when we recall their aspirations and unbending loyalty to a Divinely entrusted cause. We must care for our past to be able to care for what is yet to come.

A comparison is made between a nation and a tree in their growth and development. A tree’s central stem, when sound and healthy, sends out branches in all directions, but these branches depend upon the root for nourishment. If the branch is cut from the stem, it will wither and die. We must not only tend to the offshoots, but we must also take particular care of the root, because the life of the whole tree is tied to it.

The root of a nation is its past. However many branches it may produce, the health and future of the whole will always depend on the strength of its attachment to the past. A nation that is careless of its history is doomed.

The source of the weakness from which our people suffer can, to a great extent, be found in our disconnection from our national past. We are like branches severed from a tree and its roots. Ignorance of Jewish history is too prevalent among our people. We are unaware and hence unimpressed by the terrible cost at which those who have gone before preserved for us the name we bear. Like the spies, we do not stop to pay tribute at their graves, or to reflect on their noble lives.

The remedy for our weakness is obvious. We must regard our past as the well from which we can draw hope and sustenance. When we feel prone to despair by reason of the awful difficulties that beset us at home and abroad, we particularly need the inspiration that our history provides.

Moses’ parting advice to his people (Deuteronomy 32:7) is a real cornerstone of Jewish life. “Remember the days of old, reflect on the years of past generations. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they will declare unto you.”

May we put this sage advice into practice for the sake of future generations. Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner is dean of the Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.