Atzilut Revisited


Atzilut Revisited

by Rabbi Simon Jacobson


Now that Pandora’s box has been opened, the great thinkers of the time weigh in with their philosophical opinions about the purpose of life and our ability to fulfill that purpose.

“What am I talking about?” you may be asking. Well, I’m talking about the story in this week’s Torah portion of Moses sending scouts to check out the Promised Land, in order to help prepare for its conquest.

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The scouts are handpicked by Moses. The greatest men of their time – leaders of their respective tribes. Yet, they come back with the most terrible report, and what is even worse, they bring on one of the greatest tragedies in history.

The scouts return and basically challenge the entire notion of ever entering the land of Israel. Despite G-d’s repeated promises going back to Abraham that the people would enter the Promised Land, these ‘great leaders’ announce that Israel is a ‘land that consumes its inhabitants,’ and it is impossible for us to conquer the land!

Their frightening words traumatize the entire nation. This becomes the first tragic Tisha B’Av – the first of many to come – leaving an entire nation feeling helpless in tears because of their fears.

What is going on?! How many miracles do the Jews have to experience before they will believe G-d’s assurances? And how is it possible, that these greatest of spiritual leaders should actually stand at the forefront of challenging G-d’s explicit promises?

This is indeed one of the strangest episodes in the Torah, and upon second reading perhaps the most relevant one to our lives today.

So now we go back to the Pandora’s box. You may recall that in last week’s portion the people challenge G-d to provide them with meat. Their challenge is the challenge of life: Can we actually integrate our material world of ‘meat’ with sanctity? So they demand: “Where’s the beef?”

Now that this question is on the table, and G-d replies with the revelation of Atzilut – the cosmic ‘world’ that bridges the universe and the Divine – the greatest thinkers and spiritual leaders of the time cannot resist the ‘million dollar question:’ [1]

Yes, philosophically, G-d is all-powerful and not limited (“has my power become limited?”). Nothing stands in His way to provide meat, and allow for the finite to unite with the infinite (see last week’s article). But this is G-d’s unique power. How can we, mortal humans, ever actually expect to conquer a material “land that consumes its inhabitants”? Time and again people have failed the attempt. Every person who ever felt confident to integrate the two worlds of spirit and matter ultimately failed. [2]

Precisely because they were such great men, such spiritual people, this precisely was the reason that they so adamantly challenged the ability to enter the Promised Land and make it a home for the Divine.

Though they knew that G-d had caused the ‘emanation’ of Atzilut, which allows for the integration between spirit and matter, yet they could not fathom how most people (who don’t have the power of Atzilut) can accomplish this. Yes, perhaps Moses and the seventy elders, who received this emanation, can transform the material world and not be consumed by it, but the rest of us simply cannot do so. We don’t have that power.

Their mistake was – in its subtlest form – an error in their understanding of the significance of Atzilut. G-d emanated this dimension not just for Moses and great elders; the benefit of Atzilut is for all of existence and for the entire cosmic order. Atzilut is the first – and the root – of all the four worlds. Every aspect of existence, even in the most material level, is rooted in and mirrors the parameters of Atzilut. As Joshua and Caleb declared: “The land is very, very good.” We therefore can go forth and conquer the land.

So while it is true that souls of Atzilut (i.e. souls that retain their Divine Atzilut personality even as they come down below), like Moses and the elders, have the ability to awaken in all of us this awareness and power, yet, they awaken in us a power they lays latent – but is inherent – in every fiber of our beings.

On a more blatant level the mistake of the scouts evolved into questioning the very purpose for which we were created: Can we make it in a harsh and cruel world, a ‘land that consumes its inhabitants’? Their sin was that they didn’t just ask the question, but they also concluded that it is indeed impossible. That was a grave sin: they challenged the very mission that G-d gives each human being by sending each of us down to earth.

We were never given the right to question whether we can accomplish the mission; we were only charged with the job of figuring out how to do it.

The question still remains: How is it actually possible for us to not be consumed by the land and actually transform it? The answer and the secret lies in the two men who did not succumb to the argument of the scouts.

What distinguished Joshua and Caleb from the others, was that they both had the power of G-d with them. Moses prayed for Joshua, and Caleb went to pray at the grave of the Patriarchs in Chebron. When you are connected above you don’t fall below. Joshua and Caleb didn’t just assume a gung ho attitude, while the other cowered in fear. Joshua and Caleb humbly turned to a higher power, and that allowed them to not be frightened by the powerful tug of materialism.

Yes, when you go with your own strength and logic, you may not be able to overcome a “land that consumes its inhabitants.” Even with an Atzilut we may not be able to implement a conquest. But when you are connected above – then you allow the spirit of Atzilut to channel into your life below, empowering you with the ability to fuse heaven and earth.

Indeed, when G-d wants to punish the people for joining the mutiny of the scouts, Moses says to G-d: “Now, O G-d, You must increase your Divine strength.” And G-d concedes: “But as I am Life, and as G-d’s glory fills the world…” The challenge of the scouts necessitates a deeper revelation in understanding the nature of Atzilut – one that can only come from an increase of Divine power. Not only that G-d has the power of the finite as He does of the infinite, and the power to unite them both, but that He also empowered mortal beings to fuse the two. This is the true, deeper nature of Atzilut revealed in this week’s Torah portion.

Through their mistake, the scouts in an interesting way reveal for us a deeper understanding of Atzilut and our ability to face any challenge in life:

Yes, we live in a difficult world that poses us with formidable challenges. But we come well armed, endowed with formidable powers as well to fulfill our calling.

Our greatest challenge is to connect to above. Then and only then, we cannot fall below.

So if you were wondering: We can have our beef, and eat it too.


[1] I thank my friend and colleague, Rabbi Eli Tauger, with pointing out the following association. Rabbi Tauger is a noted writer and translator of many important works, including a new and masterful translation of Maimonides Mishne Torah, Shulchan Aruch HaRav and more.

[2] As they stated: ‘even the Owner [G-d] cannot free His containers from there’ (Soteh 35a). Granted, G-d can create the containers (he has the power of the finite just as He has the power of infinite), and He – in His divine power – can even free the containers. But that is all by the power of G-d, not in the capacity of the containers. How can He ‘free the container from there,’ how can G-d free the containers from the ‘containers’ perspective?

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