Jewish Journal

A failure of imagination: Parashat Shelach Lecha (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

by Rabbi Yehuda Hausman

Posted on May. 29, 2013 at 4:44 pm

The imagination is a stretch of highway that bends through the universe. Its lanes unmarked, its exits limitless, yet it is, nevertheless, the shortest road to anywhere. Many years have passed since I last visited the Land of Israel. Yet if I set my mind to it, I can walk its beaches, its banks, its valleys and its vineyards. I can stare at hills that flow with unearthly grace. Hills of tall trees and shade, hills blanketed with knee-length grass interwoven with wildflowers of luminous color: blossoms of canary yellow, orange hues like autumn leaves. Upon a gray misty slope overlooking the Jordan Valley, fresh grass is dotted with purple stars that surpass any painter’s mixture of burgundy and blue. Below, in twisting valleys, course wadis of white milk and rivers of red wine. Atop cities, limestone towers turn golden at sunrise. And what desert may be compared to the Judean Desert, where mountains glow like honey in the light? 

Such is the Land of Israel, a land of unending grace; a land of livestock, a land of farming, a land where every family is iridescent, and a land where every fig tree offers shade. 

But what if there was another land, also promised, perhaps in the north, perhaps to the east, or somewhere over an ocean, in a place far away? Can we imagine such a thing? Such is the question posed by the returning spies in this week’s Torah portion.

Our story begins with 12 men who set out to survey the future settlement of the Jewish people. Their mission is simple: “Go and observe, return and report.” Although these scouts, these spies, go and observe, and though they return bearing an example of the land’s riches of fruit and vine, what they report is anything but good. For somewhere along their journey, perhaps in the gray shadows of twilight or a heavy afternoon haze, 10 of these men experience a frightening vision. To paraphrase Dante, their imaginations tangled them in knots. They saw that those things were “not towers, but giants, sunk into the basin there behind the banks” (“Inferno,” Canto XXXI).

Back in the camp, their dread of the Canaanites pours out: “We were as grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13:33).  Panic ensues, and without so much as shift of the feet, the rest of Israel entered the Promised Land, envisioning the people there, not small or vulnerable, but as dinosaurs — savage, murderous beasts.

“That night the people broke into cries and wept.” And on the morrow, the Lord decreed swift punishment for all. Many ask why a pessimistic military report should have caused the spies to be struck by plague as well as the demise of an entire generation of Israelites in the wilderness. How difficult would it have been to validate fear, to find another Land? 

The midrash suggests that it was not the sin, but its psychology that was their true failing. It asks, “How could the spies know that they appeared as grasshoppers to others? Perhaps in the eyes of the Canaanites, the Israelites appeared as angels, and the Canaanites felt like grasshoppers underfoot?” If one thinks oneself an ant, then every ant seems a giant. Lacking conviction, it would hardly matter which country they scouted. 

Rabbi Yitzchak Arama offers another explanation. “It was not so much the land that they were rejecting, but God Himself.” These “heads” of Israel (Roshei Benei Yisrael) were meant “to go up to the Land.” But instead they descend from heady leaders to petrified footmen. The Hebrew for “spies” is meraglim, derived from regel, meaning “foot.” The narrative ends with the people demanding that they return to Egypt, a country steeped in oppression, violence and a religious devotion to death. For Arama, “Coveting Egypt was tantamount to idolatry.” Their failure was a lack of faith in God, and a wanton disregard of God’s faith in them. 

In my shul Shabbat morning, I often get asked why we do not regularly recite the Prayer for the State of Israel. I answer simply. Praying for Israel is so intrinsic to Jewish prayer, that if we enter a synagogue and recite a Psalm or the Amidah without a thought to Israel, it is as if we have not prayed at all. Pleading for Israel’s welfare is not merely an expression of concern for fellow kin, it is a declaration of faith in God and a declaration of faith in God’s destiny for his people. If in our mind’s eye, we cannot imagine the Land as ours, if we cannot see its pristine hills and lush valleys, we may as well return to Egypt. Anything less is a failure of faith and imagination. Children slay giants every day; they know them to be big, but they also know them to be stupid. As Herzl put it, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who teaches at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies, the Academy of Jewish Religion, California, and runs an independent Modern Orthodox minyan in Beverlywood. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.

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