Jun 18, 2011

Shlach Lecha 5771/2011: “Destiny and Choice”

Shlach Lecha 5771/2011: "Destiny and Choice"
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Rashi asks about the beginning of this week's Torah Portion in juxtaposition with the end of last week's.  He writes:

"Why is the story from this week's Parasha about the spies right next to the story from last week's Parasha of Miriam?  Because she was punished for being involved in rumor-mongering about her brother, and these wicked ones [the spies] saw this and yet did not ascertain the lesson. (Rashi on Num. 13:2)"

Miriam and Aaron are involved in casting aspersions against Moses for one reason or another in Chapter 12 of Numbers.  Miriam is stricken (presumably, Aaron ought to have been as well) with tzara'at, a spiritual skin ailment traditionally connected to the sin of evil speech.  Ten of the spies in this week's Parasha bring back reports of Canaan that lead to distress and distrust within the Israelite camp.  A close read of the biblical text might help us understand exactly where they went wrong:

At the end of forty days the Spies returned from scouting the land. They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, and they made their report to them and to the whole community, as they showed them the fruit of the land. This is what they told him: "We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan." Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, "Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it." But the men who had gone up with him said, "We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we." Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, "The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the Nephilim there — the Anakites are part of the Nephilim — and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them. (Num. 13:25-33)

Look closely at the order of events.

The spies tell of the land they toured, listing the sizes of the fruits and the nations therein.  According to Benjamin Bloom's educational taxonomy for levels of abstraction within questions, the spies first shared 'Knowledge', which includes collecting and naming lists and definitions, typically connected with questions like "who, when, where, etc."

When they complete this knowledge-sharing, spies then ascend through Bloom's taxonomy, processing what they've experienced and making recommendations.  Caleb (presumably, along with Joshua) advocates for a path of action: "We can do it!" he says.

The 10 other spies then reveal their own recommendation and say, "We can't do it!" 

The spies' self-negation ("we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves") plays an important role in understanding Rashi's comment.  What is it that they witnessed in the case of Miriam?  They saw that there are powerful consequences for the words that flow from a person's mouth, and that those consequences touch even the greatest among us.  They were tribal leaders and Miriam was a prophetess.  No one in a role of authority can ever forget that the moment they say something it becomes real for others.  There can be no truly objective glimpse into the future – there can only be a commitment to a future.

The spies would have chosen a fate of fear.  Of eternal wandering in the exile of self-alienation.  After all, the opening command of our Parasha, as understood by Rashi, as God tell Moses, "Send out these spies.  I Myself don't need them – they are for your sake, if you choose. (Rashi on Num 13:1)." 

God commands us in this Parashah to empower ourselves as destiny-setting, as deeply impactful people!  And the ultimate negation of this command is to see yourself as a grasshopper.  As Reb Chaim of Volozhin teaches in his magisterial Nefesh HaChayiim:

"And this is the Torah of being a person…: One should never say in their heart, God forbid, 'For what am I and what is my power to enact anything through my insignificant deeds?'  Understand, know, and set in your heart that every detail of every deed, word, and thought is not lost.  Every one of them ascends to its own Source to cause an effect in the highest Heavens. (NH 1:4)"

Miriam's lesson could have taught that to the spies.  And perhaps they did learn something in the end – that fear is as contagious as courage.  Perhaps that is why Rashi calls them wicked – because they were fear-infectors.  (The 'Death Eaters' in Rowling's Harry Potter saga come to mind.)
Rabbi Israel Morgenstern of Pilov once taught:

"Rashi's comment is difficult to understand.  The depth of their wickedness is the reason for the texts' juxtaposition?  Rather a deep idea is hinted to here:  One who does not want to see the truth will not see it, even if it demonstrated to him with clarity.  Their eyes are sealed from ever seeing it."

The land of Canaan, the promised land which they affirmed was flowing with milk and honey, was right there in front of the same eyes that refused to learn from the lesson of Miriam.  They saw it.  But they didn't really see it.  As Chancellor Arnold Eisen of JTS tweeted this past week:

"The spies start out with accurate reporting—until fear takes over & self-respect plummets. Neither is a good basis for destiny."

We choose our destinies.  May we remain informed of the sometimes precarious realities we inhabit and, through it all, lead ourselves and those around us with passion, conviction, and hope.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom  || Bay Area Masorti ||  ShefaNetwork 
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