Parshat Shlach 2019
Many novels offer a clear turning point in the plot, after which everything changes and the end becomes clearer. If the first half of a story is energetic and full of hope, after this event almost everything seems to be headed downward. In the Torah, one might have thought the golden calf was such a turning point, but the story continued on the same track afterwards. That sin came too early in the story.
Today we reached the turning point. The story of the exodus can be divided up as BS and AS: before the spies and after the spies. Last week’s parsha hinted at a change in the tide, when Moshe despaired of going it alone, and the people’s selective memory portrayed their culinary excesses in Egypt as if they were haute cuisine. But today it really happens.
All 12 of the spies Moshe sends to Canaan return 40 days later with glowing reports of the land and its fruits. Flowing with milk and honey. Huge grapes. Then 10 of then add: but it’s all taken, giants live there who make us feel like grasshoppers and there’s no way we can take their land.
We know the consequences. God wants to destroy the whole kit and caboodle but Moshe intervenes. God decides that they will spend 40 years in the desert, one year for each day of the spying, and during that time, all Israelites aged 20 or over – will die, except for the two spies who maintained the faith: Calev and Yehoshua. From here on, relations between Moshe and the people are mostly downhill.
But let’s stop for a moment to consider the two spies who insisted that the people could and should continue to Canaan because they were able to conquer it, with the help of their divine protector.
It takes a lot of courage to stand up for your ideas against the majority. Psychological tests conducted since the 1950s have consistently shown that when confronted by a unanimous opinion, a person may agree (publically) with an opinion that actually contradicts his own perceptions. One third of those tested will say that two lines that are totally different in length are actually equal in length. Fifty percent will say that a triangle that is one third smaller than a circle is actually larger than it.
In our story logic is no match for a strongly presented emotional argument, which is what the spies give, and especially when the listeners want to believe the lie.
Why would the Israelites want to believe the lie? Because with all the hardships of the desert, their basic needs are met without their having to lift a finger. All they have to do is march when they’re told to march and rest when they’re told to rest and limit some actions.
So where does Calev come off spouting the heretical idea that they can enter the land? (We can ignore Yehoshua for two reasons. First, he does not speak up immediately. Second, because he is Moshe’s servant, it is taken for granted that he will agree with his master.)
What Calev had is something sorely lacking in today’s political arena world-wide: integrity. The courage to stand up for one’s ideas even when they are not popular, even when they run counter to more popular opinions.
Dr. Gili Zivan cites a Mishna about Rabbi Akavya Ben Mahallalel. He stated four opinions that were not acceptable to others. Rescind these four, he was told, and we will appoint you head of the Beit Din in Israel. His answer was: I’d rather be called a fool all my life, and not become wicked for even one hour before God, lest others say – for the pomp of office he recanted.
We have had a few people like that in Israel. Benni Begin was one – and his lack of success underlines the problems such integrity entails. Politics is the art of compromise. The question is how rigid will you be and how flexible you are willing to be.
A politician will be most successful if his professed beliefs are based on the most recent surveys and opinion polls, and he can give the impression that he is leading the people holding these ideas.
It’s not black and white. Some leaders stand up strongly for their principles and we call them a danger to our safety. Or traitors. Or cockeyed idealists. A good leader maintains his basic principles and is flexible on less important issues so that he expediently succeeds in attaining what he considers important.
Calev stood up for his principles despite the rocks that were thrown at him because he had seen God’s miracles and believed that what God promised God would fulfill. But no less important, he was not the leader of the people. Moshe was. When you have a person in charge, those in the lower ranks can be more principled because someone else has their back.
The Israelites were not bad. They were just not ready to take on responsibility for their lives, including war against the Canaanites. Even when they finally entered the country they left God’s path. Imagine what would have happened had they come into Canaan a mere two years after leaving Egypt, with no strong belief in themselves and their abilities. On the other hand, better not to imagine.