This Torah reading is often read in the days around 28 Sivan, the anniversary of the arrival of the Rebbe and his wife in the U.S., in 5701 (1941) after a perilous journey from their temporary home in Paris. Here is not the place to recount the horror, turmoil, and disarray wrought in those war years. It is valuable, however, to share one vignette which sheds light on the aura the Rebbe projected during those troubled years.

The city of Nice is renowned as a pleasant seaside resort. During WWII, however, it was flooded with refugees, many of them Jewish, trying to escape the Nazi war machine.

One Shabbos, Yaakov Moshe, the son of a local Rabbi, noticed that while the entire congregation had sat down to partake of the third Shabbos meal, a person whom he had not seen before remained by the window reciting Tehillim. His countenance was dignified, his expression, composed. With intense concentration, but with no outward signs of emotion, he read King David’s psalms.

Yaakov Moshe was transfixed. In a world turned topsy-turvy by violence and war, here was a man who remained tranquil. Apparently, he was also a refugee, but he did not appear disturbed or flustered. On the contrary, he radiated the confidence and serenity that stems from inner peace.

Yaakov Moshe drew strength from watching him. After several weeks he inquired about his identity and discovered that he was the son-in-law of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn.

Parshas Shelach

There is a renowned chassidic teaching regarding the fundamental element of this week’s Torah reading: the mission of the spies and the reasons for its failure. The spies were sent to investigate the land of Israel. They came back with chilling reports, telling the people that the land “devoured its inhabitants” and they would never be able to conquer it. The people became frightened and wanted to go back to Egypt.

Chassidus explains that the spies were not ordinary people. Instead, they were the nation’s leaders, handpicked by Moses for this important mission. So why did they fail? Because of their spiritual eminence. In the desert, together with the entire Jewish people, they received their sustenance from Above; manna fell from heaven. They had no material concerns and were totally involved in spiritual development. When they saw a land controlled by the natural order, where they would have to devote their energies to material concerns, they balked. “Why do this?”, they protested, “why not remain in the desert and live off G‑d’s beneficence?”

There is a difficulty with that interpretation. The Torah had been given more than a year previously. In that time, our people had been learning about establishing harmony between the material and the spiritual and having spiritual truth manifest in material reality. The spies knew that they were going to a physical land that they would have to conquer through war. So why did they come back so disenheartened? What were they thinking at the outset?

The explanation is that when they set out on their mission, they were thinking of entering Eretz Yisrael as an abstract proposition. Now, intellectually, there is nothing more exciting than seeing an abstract idea become manifest in actual fact. Hence, originally, the spies were eager about their mission.

But when they arrived in Eretz Yisrael, they saw that this wasn’t merely an experiment in chemistry or physics. The abstracts and the practicals involved their lives: how they would get up in the morning, work during the day, and come home to their families at night. When they comprehended that, they felt challenged. “This is a land that devours its inhabitants.” “I am going to come home each night worn out, not from the physical labor of tilling the land, but from the spiritual effort of working to see my spiritual ideals expressed in actual life. To accomplish this, I am going to have to give up on ego and self-concern. Not only my material wants will need to be sacrificed, but also my spiritual ones.” For real life involves seeing spiritual principles not as abstract axioms, but as truths to be applied within the practical realities one faces and the social environment in which one exists. Rather than face such a confrontation, they preferred to remain in the desert.

G‑d and Moses rebuked them for their error. For abstracts are valuable only as they are applied. The point of giving the Torah was not to provide the Jewish people with a theoretical structure for life, a mere set of beliefs and spiritual maxims. Instead, the intent was that the Torah be put into practice and used to change the nature of our people’s lives and the world in which they live.

Looking to the Horizon

The conflict aroused when trying to express spiritual truths within the context of material existence will be resolved in the era of Mashiach. Until then, there will always be a dichotomy between spiritual truths and their expression. For the material nature of the world covers spiritual truth and prevents us from perceiving it. The Kabbalists refer to this process as tzimtzum. What it means is that although G‑dliness is the truth of all existence, it is not overtly apparent.

To illustrate the concept: When a teacher wants to communicate a deep concept, he will often use an analogy. The analogy is a foreign matter; it is not the idea he is trying to communicate. But through it, a student gets an understanding of the idea.

In a similar way, material existence is not spiritual truth; it’s only an analogy that enables us to understand it exists. But like an analogy, it conceals as it reveals, for it shows something else than its inner message.

In the era of Mashiach, that will change. We will see how every element of material existence expresses spiritual truth. Or to refer back to the illustration, it will be clear that the analogy exists only to communicate the analogue.

In such a situation, there will be no conflict between the material and the spiritual. We will have no difficulty expressing our ideas in actual experience.