A true drama unfolds before us when reading the portion of the Torah of this week. A story about spies that are sent to check the Promised Land and “See what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many. How is the land in which they live, is it good or bad? And how are the cities in which they live, are they like open camps or with fortifications? How is the land, is it fat or lean? Are there trees in it or not?” A formidable spying task for sure – they leave disguised as tourists but their aim is to understand what is going on there. No less than twelve people take the tour; maybe an excellent way to disguise their real intentions which is the gathering of vital information.
״We went in to the land where you sent us; and it certainly does flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.״
The twelve spies return and tell everyone of their findings, “We went in to the land where you sent us; and it certainly does flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Nevertheless, the people who live in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large; and moreover, we saw the descendants of Anak there. Amalek is living in the land of the Negev and the Hittites and the Jebusites and the Amorites are living in the hill country, and the Canaanites are living by the sea and by the side of the Jordan.” Seemingly this is an objective description of what the spies have seen. I say, seemingly, because there is one word that changes this dramatically, the word “nevertheless” that in this context insinuates that there is an unsolvable problem there. It is therefore that Caleb forcefully responds, “We should by all means go up and take possession of it, for we will surely overcome it.” Ten of the other spies are not late to respond, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are too strong for us… The land through which we have gone, in spying it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great size.”
Moses sent people to check the land and bring back some intelligence about it. What he got was information and two opposing interpretations of the intelligence that was collected. Ten spies are of one opinion, arguing that it would be impossible to conquer the land from its current occupiers. Caleb and Joshua are of a different opinion. They say, “The land which we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us—a land which flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they will be our prey. Their protection has been removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” The response of the Israelites to this merely an opposing view, when both sides saw exactly the same things, was, interesting. “[T]he congregation said to stone them with stones”; they listen to an opinion which they do not like and attempt to silence that side from repeating what they have said.
Obviously the silencing of one side of a debate is not really something new that is happening nowadays. Here there is an argument and instead of having a decent debate trying to understand the positions and trying to find the best solution, the choice is to dismiss, disregard and even eliminate the opposing view. We saw that this week on our television screens when Republican congressmen were the target of a person who preferred shooting at them rather than honestly debating an issue. Not always things reach this level of violence but certainly we at the Reform Movement feel the brunt of that kind of attempts to silence us in both the national and local government levels. It includes also various forms of violence, as well as physical threats to our leaders. An important lesson from the case of the spies is that even when one finds one selves in a position of a minority, and even if at times the personal risk is high, one should not give up the understanding of the reality.
In the reality of the spies there were risks and opportunities. He who looks only at the risks and does not evaluate the opportunities sins to himself and to his surroundings. Equally so, she who considers only the opportunities but fails to review the risks equally sins to herself and her environment. The risk that most of the spies saw was the challenge of fighting well-defended fortresses and formidable armies. They saw an opportunity in going back to Egypt. They did not see the risks of the situation and what it meant to become yet again a nation of salves. It seems the Caleb and Joshua had a more balanced evaluation of the situation. They are certainly aware of the risks but understand that those formidable forces are warriors who are concerned from the achievements of the Israelites, and that gives a chance when going into war. The certainly do not think that returning to Egypt is a valid option because it entails significant risk for the people.
This is true for us too. We need to carefully evaluate situations that come upon us, and carefully evaluate their opportunities and risks. We should not let ourselves be driven by our fears but rather tour the land with our eyes wide open.
Reuven Marko, 23 Sivan 5777, 16 June 2017