June 14, 2011
Parashat Shelach (Numbers 13:17-20)
I love Moses. I am a Jew, after all, because of Moses. If we Jews pursue justice, help the poor, feed the hungry and clothe the naked, it is because Moses taught us to do so. Moses is the foundation of our people. Our first and greatest prophet.
When I love people, I tend to defend them whenever they are under attack, whenever others find fault with them. I do this instinctively. Even when God finds fault with Moses for hitting the rock twice, I’d just as soon find fault with God for what I perceive as divine pettiness than find fault with Moses.
This week’s portion, however, is that rare occasion on which I find myself unhappy with my teacher, my prophet, my hero.
Roughly 3,000 years before our post-9/11 entanglement in Iraq, Moses dispatched 12 operatives to the land of Israel, requesting they return with the following report: What kind of a land is it? Are its inhabitants strong or weak? Are they many or few? Are the cities fortified or open? Is the land good or bad? Is it rich with resources or poor? Is the land forested or barren?
The instructions were clear. The mission well defined. But intelligence gathering is tricky business: What you find is often contradictory, opaque, layered and tends to morph in translation. Those who sent you on the mission may not always appreciate your findings.
The 12 spies handed back their report to Moses. To the last detail, they answered each of his questions, and while they all appreciated the land’s abundance of milk and honey, 10 of them had some eye-opening observations about the inhabitants of the land: They were giants; the land was fortified; the people fierce and mighty. The spies did not measure up in their own eyes to the locals.
The treatment the 10 spies received for reporting their findings was not unlike the treatment enjoyed by Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson when he concluded Niger was not selling enriched uranium to Saddam Hussein for nuclear weapons. His report failed to delight the U.S. administration, just as the 10 spies failed to delight Moses.
The two dissenting spies, Joshua and Caleb, were rewarded for telling Moses what he seems to have really wanted to hear: Never mind the facts, never mind the realities, we can make it! We can do anything we set our minds to as long as we have faith.
It would appear that Moses didn’t really want a detailed report — he wanted a pep talk. But, then, why send spies on a fact-finding mission if facts were not what you were looking for?
Moses seems to have had an agenda he’d failed to communicate to his emissaries. Instead, he asked for an honest report, and when he got one, he became angered.
But perhaps Joshua and Caleb got it wrong: The land of Israel did devour its inhabitants — it still does. Yes, it is beautiful and holy and inspiring, but it is also a hard, inhospitable land filled with strife. It sits in a dangerous neighborhood and it has extracted a terrible toll on the children of Israel.
Had Moses congratulated the 10 spies for their honesty, while chastising them for their lack of faith, I would have no problem with his actions. Instead, he leveled against them a death sentence: They and their entire generation would die in the desert, never reaching the Promised Land because of their lack of faith. But Moses never asked the spies for a demonstration of their faith when he sent them on their mission — he asked for their observations.
I love my homeland, and, as I have already stated, I love Moses, but I can’t escape feeling that if only Moses would have listened to his 10 skeptical spies with a more dispassionate and open mind, he might have saved us all a lot of grief. He would have also taught us an eternal lesson about the value of dissenting opinions and honest reporting.
Asking for information and ignoring it has consequences, and suppressing dissent has consequences; it has in our times just as it had 3,000 years ago.
Yes, faith matters, and love matters, and hope matters — but so does truth.
Danny Maseng is chazzan and music director at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation.