concept of aliya, going to the Land of Israel by "ascending," is derived
from this week's parasha. While "ALoH" is a common verb in the Torah, until now
it has referred to ascending mountains (Har Sinai – Shemot 19;3,23,24 and many
others), or when leaving a country, when it basically means to depart
without any particular destination (leaving Egypt – Shemot 1,10 and 12,38). Of
course, it also means ascending in other senses not connected to travelling. In
our parasha, the word appears repeatedly, meaning to travel specifically to
Eretz Yisrael, and in fact dominates the narrative.
spoke to Moshe, saying:
men, and they shall search the Land of Canaan….
sent them to search the Land of Canaan, and he said to them: ascend
(alu) through the south, and ascend (va'alitemI) the
mountain (area) (13,17)
ascended (va'yaalu) and searched the land, from the Zin desert
until Rechov on the way to Chamat.
ascended through the south, and came to Chevron…. (13,
stilled the people unto Moshe, and he said: Let us surely ascend (alo
naale) and we shall possess it, for we can surely overcome
the men who had ascended with him said: we cannot ascend to the
people, for he is mightier than we. (13,30-31)
when the spies returned and reported to the people, they did not describe what
they did as aliya.
told him, and said: We came (banu) to the land to which you sent
us, and it is indeed flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.
when they answer Calev, and declare that they cannot go to the land, do
they use the term aliya – "we cannot ascend to the people,
for he is mightier than we" (13,31). In the very next sentence, when again
describing what they did do on their trip, they revert to other verbs to
characterize their travels.
maligned the land which they had searched before the Jews, saying: The land
which we passed through (avarnu ba) is a land that consumes its
inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are mighty men.
Moshe repeatedly tells the spies to do aliya, and the Torah describes
them as having done so, but they themselves, when describing what they did, use
other, more neutral terms – indeed, they explicitly state that aliya is
impossible. It seems that the difference between Moshe (and Calev and Yehoshua)
and the spies revolves around this term.
exactly is the specific meaning of the term aliya that makes it the focal
point of the parasha?
repeated use of the term to refer to the movement of the Jews from Egypt to
Israel caused the Sages to conclude that "Eretz Yisrael is higher than
all other countries" (Sifre Devarim 152). While it is true that Egypt is for the
most part at sea level, and the heartland of Israel is mountainous, on a
pshat level this does not explain a verse where Par'o expresses his fear
that the Jews will flee Egypt – "and when a war will occur, they will fight us,
and depart (ala) from the land" (Shemot 1,10). Par'o did not care
whether the Jews would climb mountains or descend into valleys, nor is the exact
destination a matter of concern. What is important is that they will leave.
La'a lot min ha-aretz means to depart.
other times, it is not at all clear that movement upward can be intended. After
Yitzchak successfully finds water in Gerar, the Torah says that "he went up from
there to Be'er Sheva" (Bereishit 26, 23). Are we to conclude that the trip from
Gerar to Be'er Sheva included an ascent in altitude? Sometimes it describes a
meeting, without any knowledge of altitude at all. An angel tells Eliyahu to go
meet the emissaries of the king, who are on the way to consult pagan idols. "The
angel of God said to Eliya the Tishbi: Rise and go up (kum alei) to meet
the emissaries of the king of Shomron" (2Kings 1,3). Nor can this be explained
because Eliyahu was sitting when the angel spoke to him, as the emissaries
report to the king that "A man ascended to meet us…." (ibid 6).
there are the uses of aliya in the context of war. When the Jewish army
enters Yericho, after the walls collapse, the verse describes this as an
people made noise, and blew shofarot; and when the people heard the sound
of the shofar, the people made a great noise, and the wall collapsed, and
the people ascended (va-ya'al) to the city, every man straight
ahead, and they captured the city. (Yehoshua 6,20)
explicitly, Calev proceeds to conquer the city of Dvir after conquering Chevron.
Chevron is one of the highest points in the southern mountains, and Dvir is in
that section of Yehuda known as the lowlands (shiflat Yehuda). The verse
describes his movements as
drove out from (Chevron) the three sons of the giant, Sheishai, Achiman, and
Talmai, the children of the giant. From there he ascended to the
inhabitants of Dvir, and the previous name of Dvir was Kiryat Sefer.
in dozens of cases in Yehoshua, Shoftim, and Shmuel, an attack on a city will be
described as aliya, and, while in some of the cases it is possible that
some sort of physical ascent might have been involved, the regular use of the
verb to describe the action indicates that, in context, it means to attack, or
to lay siege. Consider the repeated use in the opening section of
the death of Yehoshua, the Jews asked of God, saying: Who shall ascend
first from us unto the Caananites to fight them.
said: Yehuda shall ascend; behold I have delivered the land to his
said to Shimon his brother: Ascend with me in my lot and we will fight
the Caananites, and I will go with you in your lot; and Shimon went
ascended, and God delivered the Caananites and the Prizites to his hand….
if the conversation took place in the Jordan Valley, and the Canaanites
inhabited the hill country, the repeated use of the verb, without any particular
destination or description of an actual geographic journey, makes it clear that
the intention is not to convince us that Yehuda was gaining altitude. Rather, it
is clear that aliya in these verses, as in many others, means to go to
war, to conquer, to overcome.
The common meaning to all these usages,
including of course the simple meaning of the word when used to describe
climbing a mountain, is a movement involving effort or deliberate purpose and
concentration. In nearly every case, there is an element of overcoming an
obstacle, as is most clear in the conquest examples above. But the intent is not
to the physical effort needed to overcome the obstacle, but to the mental one,
which is why it is a kind of ascent. It is the equivalent of the Biblical
"girding of one's loins." Hence, when Eliyahu is sent to meet the messengers of
the king, in the example cited above, he is not going for a casual meeting, but
for a confrontation. The messengers are on their way to place the king's request
before the pagan gods of the neighboring countries, and Eliyahu is intercepting
them and repelling them. The proper translation, in context of the verse (kum
alei likrat), is not to rise and meet them, but to rise and
confront them. To ascend to a city in Shoftim means to go to
conquer it (and not to visit it). Par'o is not expressing his fear
that the Jews may merely leave Egypt, and surely not that they will climb
on the way out, but that they will escape the bonds of Egyptian slavery,
that they will liberate themselves.
common element in the different physical actions described as being aliya
is the psychological concentration of effort, the readiness of purpose, and the
directed application of strength. Even if you are moving in an upward direction,
if somehow you are doing so by inertia, it would not be described as an
then is the context of the discussion between Moshe, the spies, and ultimately
the Jewish people. Moshe deliberately instructs them to ascend to Eretz
Yisrael, repeating the instruction a number of times. If not quite meaning
that they should conquer the land, he was nonetheless telling them that their
psychological state should be one of conquest, of confrontation, of standing up
before an obstacle and overcoming it. Indeed, the Torah states that they did
aliya – "They ascended and searched the land" (13,21) – but when they
reported on their mission, they stated merely that "We came to the land"
(13,27). Later on, they lowered the level even further, no longer "coming"
(banu) to the land, but only "passing through" (avarnu ba).
Somewhere along the line, their self-perception of what they had done changed;
in other words, somewhere along the line they lost that determination, that
purposefulness, that underlies the activity rightly called aliya. We can
rightly surmise that the change took place when they met up with the
inhabitants of the land, who psychologically overwhelmed them, as the
spies explicitly stated in one of the most famous explicit statements of
psychological self-defeat. "And there we saw the nefilim, children of the
giant of the nefilim, and we were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so
we were in their eyes" (13,33). Hence, when they explicitly state their
opposition to conquering the land, they say, "We cannot ascend to the
people" (13,31). It is unusual to find the verb of aliya used in
relation to a people rather than to a place, but in context, where the
aliya is not geographic necessarily but psychological, this statement
exactly reflects their position.
understands this clearly, and attempts to rouse the Jews to defy the defeatist
message. "Alo naale – let us surely ascend, and we shall overcome
them" This does not mean, let us go there and we shall be victorious, but
rather, ascend, gather your strength, and then we shall succeed. The spies
answer: we are unable to ascend to those people, you can visit there, there is
no problem being tourists, but aliya, overcoming the obstacles, is
impossible, for us, as well as for you (and, by implication, for God as well).
the difference between the spies and Calev is basically psychological is
explicitly stated by God when he speaks to Moshe. "And my servant Calev,
since a different spirit was with him, and he followed Me, I shall bring
him to the land to which he came, and his seed will inherit it"
explains what happens immediately afterwards, the story of the
spoke all these things to the Israelites, and the people mourned
arose in the morning, and the ascended the summit of the mountain,
saying: We are ready (hinenu) to ascend to the place of which God
spoke, for we have sinned.
said: Why are you transgressing the word of God, but this shall not
for God is not in your midst, and you shall not be smitten by your
they made the effort (vayaapilu) to ascend to the summit of the
mountain, but the ark of the covenant of God and Moshe did not move from the
camp. (14, 39-44).
group of Jews understands exactly what has happened, and resolves to correct the
situation, accepting upon themselves precisely what Calev had demanded. They
ascend the mountain, saying "hinnenu v'alinu." The word
hinenu, in all its forms (hinei, hineini, etc.) has no natural
translation in English. Here it means what I used in the translation above –
they are saying, "behold, we are ready." It is an expression of preparedness, of
readiness, of resolve and effort. Similarly, there action at the end is prefaced
with the verb vaya'apilu, a most unusual one. Rashi and most of the
commentators explain that it means that they strengthened themselves, they made
an effort. This psychological effort is the crux of the reaction to the story of
the spies. They are doing precisely what the spies had not done.
would like to suggest that this explains why we are suddenly facing a mountain
on the way to the land. The maapilim ascend a mountain, which has not
been part of the story until now. The commentators conclude that apparently the
way to the land lead over a mountain at that particular point. While that may be
true, it is strange that the Torah stresses that geographical feature, even
though it is irrelevant to the story. What is more, the fact itself is suspect.
For the confrontation with the Canaani to make sense, the Torah places them on
top of the mountain, blocking the ascent of the Jews. "The Ameleki and the
Canaani who dwelled on the mountain descended and smote them" (14,45). And yet,
previously, when God told Moshe that they cannot proceed directly to the land,
the verse states, "The Ameleki and the Canaani dwell in the valley,
tomorrow turn and travel through the desert in the direction of yam suf.
The literal contradiction between the "mountain" and the "valley" is striking. I
think the Torah deliberately puts a mountain on their path, to strengthen the
"picture" of a climb, an ascent. This is strengthened even more by the
twice-mentioned feature of "the summit of the mountain." The maapilim had
truly internalized the message of Calev, and were now ready to ascend to the
very summit of the mountain, physical and metaphorical, that stood before them.
There is here a perfect marriage of the real and the metaphorical. A mountain,
the summit, hinenu, maapilim, and of course, the repeated
aliya, all combine to paint the maapilim as the finest example of
people who are ready to struggle to conquer, to perform aliya.
is what makes their story so tragic. The message of the Torah is not that if you
try hard enough, you can do anything. The message is that to accomplish that
which God has commanded you, you need to gather all your strength and resolve.
Once God is not with you, inner resolve is irrelevant. As Moshe says, "it shall
not succeed." "al taalu" – "Do not ascend, for God is not in your
midst." Psychologically, these people are heroes, possessing admirable
character; in fact, precisely that character trait that the parasha is all
about. But it is too late, the die has been cast. Character in the service of
God is what the Torah is all about, but it is useless if not in accordance with
His will. Jewish history will have to turn back for forty years, and nothing
will be able to change that.
The use of the term"aliya" in this shiur refers only to the verb which dominates
the parasha. It was not meant to imply anything about contemporary aliya. But
that does not mean that it does not have implications in that area as well. I
leave this to the reader.