Many of us know from religious school the story that dominates this week’s parsha, Sh’lach L’cha: Moses is tasked by God with sending 12 spies to Canaan for a detailed report on the land and its inhabitants. Upon returning from their mission, they deliver their good news/bad news report.
The good news is that the land is bountiful: “It indeed flows with milk and honey…” (Numbers. 13.27)
The bad news is that those who live there are big, scary and armed: “However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large…” (Numbers 13.28).
Joshua and Caleb were the only spies who believed they would succeed: “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” (Numbers 13.30)
But the 10 other spies retorted: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we. 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…’” (Numbers 13.32)
Our people were terrified and threatened to stone Caleb and Joshua. The people even resolved to return to Egypt and face slavery rather than risk death in Canaan.
By the time they finally agreed to go up to the land, their Divine protection had evaporated. They were thoroughly routed in battle at Hormah.
I wonder, if they knew that God was on their side, why did the 10 spies give a negative report in the first place? Without their discouragement, the people would have followed Moses’ lead. It would have saved our ancestors 40 years wandering in the wilderness!
The brilliant Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as Ramban (1194-1270), says the spies are not to blame for their realistic report, saying, “…It was their duty to bring back words of truth to them that sent them.”
He teaches that the problem was not the negative report, rather the embellishment they spun: “When they saw that the Israelites were still considering going up [to the Land], and that Joshua and Caleb were encouraging them to do so, they invented a false report in order to frustrate their [intention of] going up by all possible means.”
We all need the fullest possible truth before we enter a moment of conflict or crisis. What we don’t need is fearmongering, exaggeration or falsehoods.
In the Torah, our people needed both conflicting truths. The land was good. The inhabitants were powerful. If the spies had not falsely exaggerated the danger, they might have overcome their legitimate fears. But they needed to have both truths.
So do we. Today, as Ramban taught, we need to hear more than one slice of truth, not just a one-sided, over-hyped view of our very real challenges:
The state of Israel is a modern miracle and the most important development in Jewish history over the last 80 years, if not more. It also faces tremendous political and moral challenges in governing a state of all its citizens, much less those living under occupation for the last 55 years. Zionist or critic, can we see both truths?
American Judaism is both flourishing and deteriorating. Many Jews, especially outside the Orthodox world, are so personalizing their Jewish lives the future of synagogues, schools and their leaders is imperiled. Yet it is these institutions that foster and nurture Jewish identity! Community leader or disaffected individual, can we see both truths?
The choice is not between one truth to the exclusion of the other. It is to discern kernels of truth from them both and go forward with knowledge and a brave heart.
We stand overlooking the future, a vast plain holding both promise and peril. We need leaders who can tolerate the truths of our conflicts and challenges and not exaggerate them. Only then can we move forward with both courage and healthy fear, acknowledging the promise and the peril of the future we and our children must enter.
Our choices will determine our path. Succumbing to our worst fears will condemn us to the wilderness. Denying the dangers we face moving forward risks making terrible choices. We must hold on to both truths and move forward if we are to enter a future of promise for us all. PJC
Rabbi James A. Gibson is emeritus rabbi at Temple Sinai. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.