Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
In Shelach Lecha God tells Moses to send twelve scouts to the Promised Land, so that they can bring back a report. The scouts return and say that the land is rich with “milk and honey,” but ten of the twelve go on to say that it is heavily fortified by “giants” and that there is no hope for the Israelites. Joshua and Caleb are the only scouts to speak against this fear, but their urgent pleas fall on deaf ears. As a result, panic spreads through the camp and the Israelites lash out at Moses and God. In the end, God decides that the Israelites are not ready, and decrees that they shall wander in the Wilderness for forty years. All of the adults over the age of 20 (except Joshua and Caleb) will live and die in the Wilderness. Only the next generation will be able to enter the land.
Traditionally, we understand this story as being about Israel’s loss of faith. Only Joshua and Caleb were able to keep the faith, so only they ultimately merited a home in the Promised Land. However, this year, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offered a wholly different approach. He notes that all twelve of the spies witnessed the plagues in Egypt, they saw parting of the Sea, and they heard the Revelation at Sinai. All twelve experienced God’s presence in the midst of the camp as a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night. They could not possibly have questioned their belief in God, or their experience of God’s power.
What then is the story about? Rabbi Sacks teaches that the problem is not faith but narrative, by which he means, the scouts did not understand the narrative they were part of – meaning the reality of the world around them. He noticed that while we often talk about the twelve as spies, the Torah does not call them spies at all. There are two Hebrew verbs for spying: lachpor and leragel. Neither of these terms are used in our Torah portion. Rather, the verb used to command their work is latur – and it is used twelve different times. Latur is rarely used in Biblical Hebrew. In modern Hebrew it has come to mean “to tour” – as in being a tourist. Spies and tourists are not at all similar. Tourists look for the good in the lands they visit, spies look for weaknesses.
Rabbi Sacks, in noticing this difference, understands that the problem with ten of the spies wasn’t faith, but that they did not listen! They were commanded latur, to tour, but instead they spied – and we have been calling them spies ever since. In other words, they completely misunderstood their mission, because they completely misunderstood the narrative. Their mission was to tour the land and bring back the good they found, and they did bring back a good report. But then they added the bad, acting as spies rather than as tourists, and in so doing undermined the whole purpose behind why they were sent in the first place – with catastrophic result.
Understanding the narrative around us is important at all times, but especially in times of crisis. Our ability to find our way through successfully depends to a great extent on our ability to learn and understand the narratives which surround us, not just the ones we want to believe.
For example, I want to believe the words in the Pledge of Allegiance which describe the United States as “one nation, under God.” I wish it were true, but it is not. I cannot remember a time when we were more polarized and divided than we are now. We face a health crisis, an economic crisis, and a crisis of racial injustice – and our political dysfunction is so deeply entrenched that what should be basic common sense is in and of itself politicized and polarized in ways that further divide us. We will never find our way through unless we learn to pay attention our narratives, which if they are based in reality, must include the narratives of the people around us. In other words, we must learn from the would-be spies of the Torah; we must learn to listen.
We can still make it to the Promised Land.
We will make mistakes along the way.
Please, God, may it take less than forty years.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras