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The Return of the Spies from the Land of Promise by Gustave Doré (1832-1883).

Living Judaism

The Big Picture
-- Dan Segal

The core of the Torah portion Shelach Lecha is the familiar story of the twelve spies. Twelve spies are sent from the desert to the Promised Land. Ten come back with negative reports. Two, Caleb and Joshua, report positively.

The ten are apparently more persuasive than the two with the children of Israel. Hearing the report of the ten, the people are increasingly dissatisfied and afraid. They regret being in the desert and long to be back in Egypt. This enrages God and puts Him on the verge of ending the entire enterprise and destroying the people. Moses argues with God -- somewhat reminiscent of Abraham’s argument with God over Sodom and Gomorrah -- contending that, if He destroys the people, His reputation among the nations of the world would drop precipitously -- essentially that His poll numbers would hit rock bottom -- and that those nations would say that He couldn’t deliver His people as he had sworn to do.

Moses’ argument is apparently a persuasive one to God. Hearing Moses’ plea, He decrees in language familiar to us from the High Holidays, "I forgive as you have asked."

That's the good news. The bad news is that at the very same time, God also decrees that the children of Israel will have to spend another 38 years wandering in the desert and, even worse, that apart from Caleb and Joshua, no adult from the desert generation will live to enter the Promised Land. The profoundly mixed message of "I forgive as you have asked" with this harsh decree is underlined by the tradition that both the forgiveness and the decree were given on Tisha B’Av.

As familiar as this story is, it’s got a number of interpretations, messages and illuminating subtleties. I would like to touch on several. First is the question as to whether the twelve individuals were or were even meant to be spies. The twelve are not people skilled in spying -- meraglim -- but rather "chieftains of each tribe," i.e., people highly regarded and politically well placed rather than accomplished spies. The word meraglim is not even used in the entire story. Moreover, if they were going to be spies, why a number as a high as twelve? That’s an incredibly large group for spying in terms of logistics and maintaining secrecy.

Contrast all this with the haftarah associated with Shelach Lecha from the book of Joshua, also dealing with spies -- Joshua sending spies into Jericho. He sends two, not twelve, and they are explicitly and unambiguously identified at the outset of the story as meraglim, spies.

So what was going on here? What was Moses trying to do? Remember that it was Moses’ idea -- spurred on by the people -- not God’s idea, to undertake this expedition. That is emphasized at the very beginning of the portion. God says to Moses, "Shelach Lecha," send for yourself. This was at root a political rather than a spying endeavor. Moses picked twelve influential people -- movers and shakers. He thought that they would go into the Promised Land, be enormously impressed, report this to the children of Israel and reverse their cynicism and skepticism.

From this perspective, the expedition was an operation in which Moses knew or thought he knew what the result would be. The phenomenon of a task force or study group being appointed for political reasons with the preordained expectation of what its results will be is, of course, common to us today.

Unfortunately, Moses‚ political ploy -- again like some of our contemporary study groups and task forces -- was a failure. Ten of the men came back with negative reports. This raises a second point. What were the deficiencies in the report of the ten? After all, none of the facts that they reported were false. They acknowledged the richness of the land. Their statement that the people were powerful and that their cities were fortified was absolutely true. The assertion that these people were stronger than the children of Israel, a ragtag assembly of former slaves who had been trekking through the desert for two years, was also true.

Where the reports were essentially deficient, though, was in not limiting themselves to the provision of intelligence. Rather than restricting themselves to a factual report of what they had seen, they engaged in policy formulation. They said explicitly, "We cannot attack these people," essentially saying not to go ahead. This was not intelligence presentation, but rather policy formulation, formulation beyond the scope of the spies‚ assigned task.

Moreover, and just as critically, this policy prescription as to "non-attacking," while it may have been a perfectly reasonable prescription based on the narrow framework of what the ten had observed on their expedition, ignores the broader context. It ignores totally the reality of what had come before -- principally, the departure from Egypt and Mt. Sinai. If the ten had considered the context in which they were operating -- the Plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, the provision of manna, the giving of the Torah, for instance -- they could not possibly have concluded that they would be defeated. Not in light of God’s power as it had in fact been exercised on their behalf. The failure of the ten was their readiness to draw firm policy implications solely on the basis of what they had seen in their scouting endeavor without putting it into the context of the miracles that the people had already experienced. Again, the failure to take context and the "big picture" into consideration in making and acting on judgments is a failure repeated many times in contemporary political life, and one that many of us suffer from as well in our own personal lives.

As an additional and related message of the portion, consider briefly the notion of forgiveness. As I noted earlier, God announces, "I forgive as you have asked," but nevertheless decrees that none of the generation at Sinai will enter the Promised Land. What is the message? Unlike the case in other traditions, the notion of forgiveness by God in Judaism does not fully wipe out the sin as if it never existed. It’s not absolute. Sins and wrongdoing have consequences that may well not be fully erased by forgiveness. What forgiveness does is work to mitigate, rather than erase the consequences of sin.

Again, the High Holiday liturgy graphically demonstrates this proposition. At a high point in that liturgy, we say, "repentance, prayer and charity will avert the evil decree." While, in this formulation, the "evil decree," presumably death, is eliminated, this does not eliminate all consequences of our sinning. Our sinning remains a fact from which, despite forgiveness, there may well still be consequences with which we have to deal.

A final and perhaps broader message of the portion’s story is worth mentioning. While the ten spies and the two spies were looking at precisely the same things, they came to diametrically opposed conclusions. The two, Joshua and Caleb, taking the more optimistic portion -- viewing the glass half full rather than half empty -- ultimately prevailed in how the story came out. That is, the children of Israel were ultimately delivered to the Promised Land. One cannot help but feel that this optimistic view not only proved the correct prophesy, but also played an essential substantive role in how events developed. At a minimum, the fact that there were two optimists rather than simply twelve pessimists, had to have helped Moses in persuading God to go ahead with the deliverance.

The message to us may be the same. Taking a positive perspective -- viewing our glass half full rather than half empty -- is more than a neutral matter of emotion, more than a simple measure of satisfaction in mixed circumstances. Rather, such an optimistic view has a profound substantive effect on our ability to meet the challenges that we inevitably face. Recognizing the divine blessings we do have despite the unquestionable presence as well of negative features in our lives, and having confidence despite significant hurdles in our capacity to overcome personal, physical or professional difficulties that we face are enormously valuable assets in substantively meeting and overcoming those difficulties. For that reason, if for no other, the models of Joshua and Caleb are well worth following and emulating.

Originally presented as a Dvar Torah on June 9, 2007 at the Havurah service at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El.

Dan Segal, is an attorney with the firm Hangley Aronchick Segal & Pudlin, and has held numerous leadership positions in the Philadelphia Jewish and legal communities. He is currently President of the Board of Overseers of Hillel at the University Of Pennsylvania.

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