Where’s the Beef?


Atzilut Revisited

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.

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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Avraham Yehoshua Kahana
14 years ago

Rabbi, allow me to shift to a different topic – for I did not understand the current article (I missed the Atzilut

thing, I did not read the previous article), but on the other hand I was granted the chance to read the formidable

text in your article:

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.

I have to say – I have been stuck in this issue for almost the very first day I decided to go back home, as I

call a jew returning to Torah. Everything I study, every question that pops in my mind – ultimately stem from the

following issue: whos the central figure in my life ? Is it supposed to be God ? Or is there any chance that I can

regard myself as playing the main role in my own world ?

Lets elaborate. Lets deliberate on the 2nd hypothesis – for it is the easiest to think of. Would there be any

other reason for my existence if not for my own sake ? If not for my personal fulfillment ? Its funny, as I

explore this question and the aforementioned answers come in I feel they dont sound like an answer, because they

do not seem to fit in the Jewish understanding of life. (I just ask you to please picture myself not as a

materialistic / material-oriented person, since I believe I am not or at least I am not anymore. Not the normal

live the moment ! type, but certainly not a tzadik (was I one I assume I would not be asking these things. Think

of myself as a very simple chozer be tshuva, who tries to climb the ladder one very small step at a time).

Back to our discussion, let me now try to ponder on the 1st hypothesis – even with me not being able to clearly

answer the 2nd one, this is where my real problem lies – for I cant even scrap half an answer to it.

Assuming God is the center of my world, of my life – I presume the obvious conclusion would be that I should live

according to his will. Eventually I will come across the idea that His will is what is best for me. (I need to stop

here, because for every single sentence I write 4 new questions or considerations pop up in my mind – I originally

planned to leave you a comment, so…).

If it is right that I am supposed to live according to His will – (I am obliged to say that my mind asks me to

write worse, that I was given the option of choosing or not to live according to his will – while choosing not to

seems the wrong thing to do !!!) – if Im supposed to live according to his Will – if thats the case – first, the

very first, obvious, that utterly begs for the smallest glimpse of an answer: why would it be the case – that God

NEEDS me to live according to His Will.

One might say: who told you he needs you ? He has many others. Youre not the center of the universe. Yet, that

does not help, if I think – and doesnt seem to me so far-fetched a thing – to assume many others pose this very

same question.

Perhaps I am focusing in the wrong spot. Problem might not be with me, but with need. Indeed, again, I left

the most difficult for later. Now what I am left with, to answer myself – how is it possible that God needs ???

This puts the whole system down. The whole world, the whole of humanity, the whole of as-many-worlds I have heard

of that comprise the universe. Whatever is it that God would eventually need – in case I get past the needing

issue – he would never ever need anything but him to accomplish that.

One might come now and say: but wait a minute, dear, who told you He is looking for something for Him ? Now comes

the big revelation, the secret you are missing: He is looking for something for you !!!

How can this make any sense ?! How can God know what I want ? Overtly, He knows it better than me – since He is the

one who fashioned and I am the creation (a computer knows nothing about what he wants, he just does it because

this is how it was programmed to do so, according to the will of his creator (the one who forms/gives him

life/instills in him purpose) – but, then again, if He way better than I knows what I want – how can He ever

claim He wants my good if He created me with a conscience that seeks day after day what is it that I want/what is

the purpose – and yet did not give me the understanding of it ((there are several other ways of posing this, just

like most of everything I wrote so far) or did want me to toil to get their myself so I would finally fill satiated

and pleased (which, by the way, are holes in my soul he the Creator Himself created !!!))

Well, well. All this is very ironic and funny, actually (if we are endowed with some Jewish sense of humor – but

let us not forget that I doubt you would agree calling this funny if we think that these are factors that lead

people to todays so widespread depression and other soul-affecting illness – as happened to myself). All this

debate, all this earnest reasoning in search for understanding – understanding of how good a reason can there be

for why should you ALWAYS overcome and not stumble against all the obstacles ahead. This is only as sincere as the

realization of the incapability of the very entities that give these questions life to provide them with answers as


I will stop here,
Shabbat will very soon knock at my door,
and how would I leave someone outside unattended (unless… there was no attending needed).
(By the way, if possible – if this text reaches you, I would like it to reach your brother Y. Y. Jacobson as well,

who wrote a brilliant article about Parashat Korach – which instilled me with eagerness again – but just like

Korach himself, I fail to nourish it/let it live for too long.)

Shabat Shalom
Avraham Yehoshua Kahana

Avraham Yehoshua Kahana
14 years ago

In case I did not make any point in the message I have just sent, here is what I should have asked:

I dont understand/my understanding cant accommodate the world being created. Anything being created means the creator needing it created, to fulfill whatever purpose it designs it to or whatever else you want to argue – but doesnt seem we will accept a creation was created for no reason. God needs nothing, so if, at all, any creation would be needed, they wont be for Him. Next obvious step is: how can something be destined to fulfill the need of things that do not yet exist.
And there is no such answer here as Because there was no way those things could be created before, no – because it leads me back to then why would a non-needing entity (God) need to create needing entities at all. None of them (the needing entities (humans, plants, rocks, life, earth, planet)) ever asked to be created, thus never ever uttered a single request of needing this or that for them.

Shabat Shalom

14 years ago

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. I LOVE THIS.. IT IS WHAT I AM. thanks!! for sharing your writing..only the very essence of what G-d is can overcome dividing walls —where all is one from origin.

13 years ago

I need a cup of caffeine before my Atzilut is awakened.

13 years ago

It seems to me that the rabbis, and your essay, set up straw men. There is no evidence, except for our beliefs, to regard these men (the meraglim) as the greatest and the best of their generation or any other.
No doubt great things happened to them.
They witnessed amazing miracles. But judging from their comportment and reportage about the land, they werent
as great as we are claiming.
Could it be that the Torah is teaching us that even God cant use shock therapy to transform us? Total transformation is a process that begins with a commitment (Sinai), followed by the internalization of the principles of the Torah (40 years). Apparently, God concluded that the people needed that amount of years for the process to occur.
Another lesson to be derived from this episode is that one needs to know the right questions to ask and the way to ask effectively. Moses charge to the meraglim, asking for a qualitative assessment of the land, was an invitation to disaster. When you ask for an opinion beware of what comes out as an answer.
Sen Moynihan had an instructive dictum.
Everyone has a right to his opinion, but no one has a right to his own facts. When you ask whether the land is good or bad, (as Moses did), you are asking for an opinion and opening a Pandoras box..

13 years ago

Dear Rabbi Jacobson;
Is the message that by creating a conduit via prayer, whether it is our own or prayed for us, we access Divine energy? Although for a long time I felt my prayers went unanswered, somehow my need to pray, not a sense of a Divine need to receive prayer, motivated me to continue and increase my davening. While I remain in need of HaShems assistance in several crucial areas of my life, I have begun to see His hand as it were, in the blessings which are immanent. May it continue thus through fruition and beyond.

Mike Fishbain
8 years ago

With all due respect, this was WAY above my ability to understand!
I still really have no clue what is meant by Atzilut?!

Guess I have more studying to do!!

Shabbat Shalom

Reuven Green
8 years ago

To Yehoshua Kahana:
The way I see things, Hashem does things for our own good and with our inner well being in mind. Why He does it is something I don’t believe we can ever know. It’s often said that He does it all out of an act of Love for us. I think this is as close to the truth as we can get, but even then – I believe we can’t really know what His Love is like. Surely much purer than ours, and such that we can’t reach mir even imagine.
So no, I don’t believe He needs us at all. Neither us, nor anything we do. His “handling” of things is purely for facilitating our Personal Growth and Inner Development. Ours -not His.

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