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Jewish learning Open My Eyes to Your Wonders

By Rabbi David Maayan `17

Parashat Shelach L’cha (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

“Who lit the wonder before our eyes and the wonder of our eyes?” With these words, R. Abraham Joshua Heschel evokes the profound sense of wonder at the world that we see as well as the wonder of the experience of our seeing itself. This week’s parashah opens with the story of the twelve spies whom Moses sends to scout out the Land of Israel. What Jewish tradition refers to as “the sin of the spies” culminates in the negative and profoundly discouraging report brought back by ten of the twelve spies, which send the people reeling into despair and anger. Yet in the view of R. Mordekhai Yosef Leiner of Izhbits [d. 1854], the problem of the spies did not begin with their verbal report. It was rooted in their eyes, and how they saw the Land. He thus opens his discussion of the incident by quoting the verse “Open my eyes, and I will gaze upon the wonders of Your Torah” (Psalms 119:18). What do his reflections reveal about the possibilities open to us through the “wonder of our eyes?”

According to the Izhbitser Rebbe, the specialness of the Land of Israel is the unique way that Torah is manifest there. Nonetheless, just as with the text of the Torah itself, this manifestation of meaning and divinity is not on the surface, nor is perceiving it merely a passive process. The Torah is not simply laid bare before anyone who turns her or his eyes to it—one must seek Torah. This is expressed in the traditional name for a place of Torah study—a Beit ha-Midrash, literally a House of Seeking Out, of active interpretation.

It is significant that the same verse (Deuteronomy 11:12) which describes the Land of Israel as the place where “the eyes of Hashem your God are always upon it,” also calls it the Land that Hashem seeks out (doresh otah). Even the eyes of God are, as it were, constantly searching and questing in the Land. The opening verse succinctly expresses the sense that, if I do not see the wonders of God’s Torah, it is not that such wonders are not before me but rather that my gaze needs to be transformed, my eyes “opened” to be able to see. To be willing to admit this, and to ask for divine help, is an essential element of revelation. Revelation is not simply an act that we perceive, it is a process that we must willingly participate in by offering ourselves, including our wonder and our questions.

Numbers 14:2 tells us that Moses sent the spies not simply to “see” the land but to “search in her” (from the root tur). This verb, R. Leiner teaches, means “to gaze into the inward depths,” to quest for the hidden truth and not simply to take in outward impressions. (It is a rare verb in the Torah, found only in Numbers and once in Deuteronomy, almost exclusively referring to the work of the spies.) Looking only on the surface was an essential element in the spies’ failure.

It is crucial to clarify which model of “searching the depths” is intended here. For this metaphor could be employed in terms of conquest and violence. For example, one who is aware of something of value beneath the surface may demolish a mountain to search for gold, or plan a raid to steal hidden treasures. In contrast, the Izhbitser Rebbe is presenting a model of mutuality and love. The Izhbitzer evokes this by drawing upon a profoundly influential passage from the Zohar (II:99a), in which the inward depth of the Torah is compared to a princess in a tower. She reveals herself, sending out her searching gaze towards her potential lover outside. Such a gaze communicates not simply the raw fact of her existence but something of her inner desire and true being. The student of Torah who would respond to this call must also be willing to reveal inner secrets, to share their inner being with that of the Torah. Like a lover’s gaze, the gaze of one who is “searching the depths” in love conveys a willingness to be seen by, as well as a desire to see, the beloved.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav [d. 1810] powerfully offers another image of a loving request that communicates desire rather than violence and conquest. He teaches that the rock which Moses was instructed to speak to (in Numbers 20) represents the Heart of the Divine, and the flowing water he sought, the revelation of Torah. Rebbe Nachman compares Moses’ sinful act in striking the rock to one who seeks to “grab” Torah insights by force. By contrast, Moses was called upon to stand before the Divine Heart and pray, revealing himself in a devotional stance. (See Likkutei Moharan I, Lesson 20.)

Yet if the spies didn’t reveal themselves, is this not the very thing that spies can never do? Of course a spy attempts to avoid being seen—indeed at all costs, a spy must not be truly seen, that is, recognized as a spy. Perhaps the sin of the spies was rooted not only in their superficial seeing, but also in their unwillingness to be seen.

The spies’ mission operated on multiple levels. Yes, they were gathering pragmatic and strategic information about the land and the people who lived there—and for this they had to operate undercover. Yet on another level their job was to gaze upon the land of God’s promise, to meet the Divine gaze in this land that God’s eyes are always searching out. Their mission was to fill in the Divine promise, which the whole of Israel knew of, with specific visions and revelations, to communicate the wonder and possibilities by fleshing them out. It is here that they fell so short—as the Izhbitser Rebbe teaches, because they did not pray to God to open their eyes to see these wonders.

Rashi tells us that Caleb traveled to the burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs in order to pray that he not be drawn into the approach of the majority of the spies. Caleb understood that their full mission required standing before God and revealing themselves in prayer. Only when one reveals oneself to God in prayer does the Torah—and the Torah hidden within the world, and particularly in the Land of Israel—reveal itself. “Open my eyes, and I will gaze upon the wonders of Your Torah.”

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Rabbi David Maayan is a PhD candidate in Comparative Theology at Boston College, and is currently serving as Maurice and Douglas Cohn Visiting Chair in Jewish Thought and Assistant Director of the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at Saint Leo University in Florida. He received an MA in Jewish Studies from Hebrew College, with a focus on Hasidism, in 2017. He has also taught courses in the Hebrew College Rabbinical School and for the Me’ah learning program.

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