May. 28, 2010
There is a wonderful story in the Book of Numbers, which we read in early June this year, about the 12 spies, each representing a tribe of Israel, who are sent to scout the Land of Israel.
"See what kind of country it is," Moses tells them. They are instructed to investigate its cities, people, soil, and forests, and bring back some of the fruit of the land.
The scouts spend 40 days exploring the land. Before they return, they stop in the valley of Eshkol, near Hebron, where they cut a cluster of grapes and gather some pomegranates and figs.
Upon their return, they show the fruits to the Israelites, proving that the land they scouted is indeed flowing "with milk and honey."
But now it gets messy. Ten of the spies frighten the Israelites. After displaying the fruit of the land, these 10 tell stories of the powerful people, the large fortified cities, and the dangerous inhabitants. Naturally, the report terrifies the community. Caleb, however, seeking to assure the people, says, "Let us by all means go up to the land, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it."
Spreading even more fear, the 10 spies claim that the country "is one that eats up its inhabitants.
All the people we saw are giants," they say. "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them." The entire community of Israelites turns on Moses and Aaron, shouting at them, "Why is Adonai taking us to that land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off!... Let us head back for Egypt."
Twelve spies scouted the Land of Israel and they came back with two diametrically opposite reports. They all agreed the land was good. But 10 of them saw that the people who lived there were giants and that there was no way the Israelites could conquer the land, while the two others saw the same landscape and decided that if God went with them, they could do it.
How can two groups look at the very same place and see it in such totally different ways? The answer is that what you see depends on how you look. A colleague in Florida shares an illuminating story about this subject. He once went to a wedding while he was a student in rabbinical school. When he came back, he met one of his professors, Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, who asked the student what the wedding had been like.
The student said, "The groom had a physical handicap and so did the bride.
The groom had almost no relatives and neither did the bride." And then the student started to say to Dr. Heschel, "So it was a very sad wedding." But before he could finish, Dr. Heschel said to him, "How beautiful!" And the student realized he was right.
The very reasons why the student was about to say that it was a sad wedding were the reasons why Dr.
Heschel felt, and rightly so, that it was a wonderful wedding. He was able to see the same event that the student looked at, but with wiser eyes and a more understanding heart. As the student viewed it later, Dr. Heschel saw beauty in an event where the student had overlooked it.
What happened to those 10 spies?
And why is their fearsome report considered such a sin? After all, ultimately, the people decide to follow the positive report of Caleb and Joshua and to carry forward in their march toward conquest. One modern commentator suggests that their sin is more serious than slander. The people had left Egypt fully aware of God's promise of conquering the Land of Israel. This is the community's expressed goal from the moment they left Egypt. The spies, however, return and take advantage of the people's anticipation of their report to discredit the entire enterprise. That is their sin.
They conspire to convince the people that God is leading them -- not to a land of opportunity and plenty, but to disaster.
Reporting that the cities of the land are protected by high walls and guarded by powerful giants, they strike fear into the hearts of the people. They destroy their dreams and willingness to go forward to conquer the land.
Other commentators are a little more generous to the spies. A Chasidic teacher writes that the sin of the spies is not their plan to undermine the expectations of the people to settle the land, but their actual carrying out of the plan after their scouting mission. Human beings, observes the rabbi, are not held responsible for evil thoughts or evil plans. They sin when they translate their evil plans into the reality of deeds.
This is the sin of the spies. With their unfavorable report they turn a whole nation away from its goal of conquering their land.
Caleb and Joshua, on the other hand, refused to see themselves as grasshoppers, and when they viewed the land of plenty, they saw beauty and opportunity, as long as God stayed with them. It's all a matter of how we decide to observe the situation.
May God give us the eyes and the perspective to see the world in the way of Caleb and Joshua, and may we see the opportunities and blessings that abound.