Are you an “In the Box” or “Out of the Box” Jew?

How is it possible, that 10 of the twelve men, handpicked by Moshe Rabbeinu himself, went so far “off the derech”, that they made the outrageous claim that, “Ki Chazak Hu Memenu” ,  G-d Himself will not succeed against the nations of Cannaan! In a matter of 40 days, the 10 spies went from being the most honorable leaders of the Jewish people to become deniers of the omnipotence of Creator of the entire Universe!

As in all narratives of the Torah, there is much more here than meets the eye. And being that Torah is a book of instruction, rather than a story book, there must be some profound message in this story that has meaning and relevance to our lives, here and now in the 21st century.

What was the real agenda of the Spies? To seize power? To sabotage G-d’s plan just to spite Him? To frighten the Jewish people so that they too would lose faith in G-d and rebel against Him?

Actually none of the above are correct. Clearly Moshe chose the most appropriate individuals to carry out this mission, and he knew that each one of the Spies were men of immense righteousness and spiritual stature. So what went so terribly wrong?

Some people believe in living “in the box”, and others believe in living “out of the box”.  “In the box” means living isolated, insulated Jewish lives, occupied solely with the study of Torah and the service of the heart (Tefilah).  The outside world is considered a direct threat to living as a “religious” Jew; the very thought of living “out of the box” is frightening and considered an act of spiritual suicide. It is an “Eretz Ocheles Yoshvehah”, a land that consumes its inhabitants.  You cannot engage in mundane matters without being swallowed up by materialism, by the constant challenges presented by day to day life in the workplace, on the streets, in the marketplace of ideas, and in the capitals of consumerism and pleasure seekers.

This was precisely the point the Spies made. The Land of Canaan was the very antithesis of the Encampments of the Desert. Free from engagement in the material world, free from the challenges of making a living, with all the time in world at their hands to study Torah and serve G-d in the largest roaming yeshivah of all time- there could be nothing better in life than to stay “in the box” and not subject oneself to all the distractions and temptations of living in the outside world?

It was precisely because the Spies were so ultra-righteous that they did not want to the Jewish people to leave the confines of the Sinai “Yeshivah”. Of course they believed in G-d; without a doubt they wanted to fulfill G-d’s will. The problem was that they erroneously thought that G-d’s will was to live “in the box” not for 10, 20 or even 40 years, but forever!

When they said “Ki Chazak Hu Memenu” , they were not referring to the Almighty. “Klapei Maalah” says Rashi, they were refering to that which is “above”, the G-dly soul within every Jew. The world is too powerful, they said;  the enticement is too great- it is stronger than the G-dly powers invested within every Jew by virtue of his Neshamah. You can only be a fully committed, observant Jew, dedicated to Torah and Mitzvos, if you live “in the box”, away from the physical and mundane life of the “outside” world.

What do you think? Were they really so wrong?

Ironically many Jews think like the Spies without even realizing it. They too think it is not possible to be G-dly and fully invested as a Jew when they are “outside” of the box. Of course, they say, it is possible and even obligatory to be fully connected to Hashem when you are learning in Yeshivah or davening at the shul. Even at home, you can perhaps set up walls to protect you and your family from the insidious influences of the outside world.

But once you step “out of the box”, when you go to work, when you are walking the streets of Manhattan or on vacation in the Bahamas, it is not possible to maintain your spiritual stature. Don’t even try! It is an “Eretz Ocheles Yoshvehah”, so as the saying goes, when in Rome, do as those in Rome! You have to realistic and be ready to compromise; surely do not expect to be unaffected by your surroundings. And forget about influencing the society around; quickly run and jump back “in the box” so at least there you can be a true religious Jew.

Both approaches are ultimately two sides of one coin, and are dead wrong.

G-d wants a Dirah B’Tachtonim, a dwelling place for Himself in the “lowly, lowliest place” – this physical and material world. He wants us to transform the world into a “holy” world, not by secluding ourselves from it, and certainly not by giving in to it, but by activating our G-dly powers, the power of light that is incomparably greater than the power of darkness. Doing physical Mitzvos in a very physical world; living a life of righteousness in every corner of this glorious world, learning Torah and davening in the office, in our hotel room, on the mountains and in our car- demonstrates and reveals, that there is no place devoid of Him; to the contrary, the world is filled with His glory and manifests His intention that every place or thing can and should be a place that G-d can call His “home” .

Nobody ever said it is easy. But as Calev said “Aloh Naaleh V’Yarasnu Osah Ki Yachol Nuchal Lah”. We can do it. It is not up to us to decide it is too hard, for if this is what G-d wants, then certainly He has given us the power to accomplish our mission. That mission is ultimately to make that which “out of the box” the same as that which is “in the box”.  May we be zocheh to fulfill that mission in our day to day lives, and ultimately usher in the time when the “world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d” with the coming of Moshiach Tzidkeinu, speedily in our days.

By Rabbi Avremel Kotlarsky


Rabbi Avremel Kotlarsky is the regional director of Chabad Lubavitch of Rockland, and lives in New City. He is also the principal of The Hebrew Academy, a yeshiva for boys and girls 18 months to 8th grade.