June 14, 2001
Spies Like Us
When thinking about the fiasco of the Israelite spying venture into the Land of Canaan, we often focus on the question "How did it go so wrong?" How could Israel's elite, entrusted with the task of preparing Israel's conquest of the land, become so frightened? And how could they have such little faith in the God who had already spectacularly defeated the Egyptians?
A more basic question though, would be "Why was this mission authorized at all?" Given God's repeated promise of success, and given the fact that the people really had nowhere else to go, why embark on this kind of information-gathering expedition?
This is the question that troubled the 15th-century Spanish scholar, Don Yitzchak Abravanel. In setting out to find an answer, he first reconstructed a full chronology of the events by combining the story as it appears in this week's reading with the account that Moses relays in the opening chapters of Deuteronomy.
these two biblical accounts yield the following sequence of events: About two-and-a-half months after departing from the Mount Sinai area, the Israelites arrived at the "hill country of the Amorites," which was destined to become part of the Land of Israel. Moses commanded them, saying, "Go up and take possession of it.... Do not be afraid." The leaders of the tribes actually were a little bit afraid, so at the urging of their constituents, they requested permission to send spies into the land so they could allay their fears by drawing up a proper military strategy.
Moses consulted with God and received the response that is recorded as the opening words of this week's reading: "Send thou men, that they may spy out the Land of Canaan."
As Abravanel interprets these events, the people's request to send spies was actually a positive sign. For two years, ever since they left Egypt, the people had been, quite literally, followers. Wherever God's pillar of cloud ventured, they obediently followed. But as they stood on the edge of their promised land, they were moved to take ownership of their journey. They wanted to invest themselves in the process of conquest and to have input into how their future would play out.
This was deemed by God to be a good thing. When people feel ownership of a venture, their commitment to it is far deeper. Was there a risk of the whole thing backfiring? Sure.
Ownership of a project also entitles people to scrap that project if they deem it unrealistic. But the cost/benefit calculus strongly favored allowing the people to become empowered. Despite the story's negative end, the beginning, as read by Abravanel, was a pleasant and promising surprise.
As we reflect upon the current state of Jewish life in America, this story has a striking resonance. For a variety of very good reasons, there has been a dramatic shift, in almost all Jewish religious circles, toward empowering people to take ownership of their Judaism and of their synagogues.
Jews in the pews are being offered and are taking advantage of opportunities to shape and reimagine Jewish life cycle ceremonies, liturgy, synagogue music and holiday observances. Study of the meaning and origins of Jewish practices is appropriately at the root of this ownership-taking. And this trend has revitalized Jewish religious commitment in communities across the country.
the story of the spies also underscores the challenge that accompanies this current trend. While we are busy doing our reshaping and reimagining, is anyone making sure that the common threads that hold us together as a single religious community are remaining intact? Sometimes, for the sake of preserving our ability to feel a primal connection to one another's Jewish expressions, it is worth sacrificing a measure of personal creativity, even when the latter will yield deeper personal religious meaning.
This is especially true when we are discussing not modes of Jewish practice but core elements of Jewish belief.
Taking ownership of communal property is a little tricky, and all of us who are engaged in this often exhilarating and productive process need to be mindful of the totality of the legacy of the spies.
As our sages teach, there are 48 ways to acquire the Torah for oneself. But our sages also teach that all Israel is responsible one for the other.