In this week’s Torah reading, the episode of the spies takes center stage. Moses had sent them to spy out the Land of Promise but upon their return they acknowledged that the Land was indeed “flowing with milk and honey” as Moses had previously told the children of Israel, BUT….” It was the “BUT” that caused all the ensuing problems, for they added “but it is impossible to conquer.”
“The people who live there are powerful, and the cities fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of the giant there … We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are … All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the titans there … We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we seemed in theirs” (Num. 13:28-33).
How could they have gotten it so wrong? The truth is that while they were terrified of the inhabitants of the Land, they entirely failed to realize that those same inhabitants were terrified of them!
Rahab, the prostitute in Jericho, tells the spies sent by Joshua a generation later: “I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you … our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:10-11).
How then did these men, leaders in the congregation, make such a terrible mistake? Did they misinterpret what they saw? Was their faith in God too weak? Did they lack faith in themselves? Or was it something else? Maimonides argues in his work,The Guide for the Perplexed, that their fear was inevitable given their past history. They had spent most of their lives as slaves. Only recently had they acquired their freedom. They were not yet ready to fight a prolonged series of battles and establish themselves as a free people in their own land. That would take a new generation, born in freedom. Humans change, but not that quickly (Guide III, 32).
Most commentaries accuse the spies of a failure of courage or faith or both. Yet, as mentioned above, these men were, after all, “princes, chieftains, leaders” (Num. 13:2-3). Could it be that in fact they did not fear failure; they feared sucess?
Could it be that they did not want to leave the wilderness? Who could blame them for that? Think about it! They did not want to lose their unique relationship with God in the peaceful silence of the desert, far removed from the rest of the nations and their problems. Here, in the desert, they were closer to God than any generation had ever been. The God of Israel was a palpable, visible presence in the Sanctuary in their midst. Every day they looked at the awesome pillar of cloud by day and the brilliant pillar of fire by night. They ate manna from heaven and water from the rock. They experienced miracles daily. So long as they stayed in the desert under God’s sheltering canopy, they did not need to plow the earth, plant seeds, gather harvests, defend a country, run an economy, maintain a welfare system, or shoulder any of the other earthly burdens and distractions that take peoples’ minds away from their relationship with God.
Here, suspended between past and future, they were able to live with a simplicity and directness of relationship with their God they could not hope to find once they had re-entered everyday life in the material world. Paradoxically, although a desert is typically considered to be the exact opposite of a garden, in fact, the wilderness was the Israelites’ ‘Garden of Eden’. Here they were as close to God as Adam and Eve were before their loss of innocence.
Both Hosea and Jeremiah compared the wilderness to a honeymoon. Hosea said in the name of God: “I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her” (Hos. 2:16), implying that in the future God would take the people back there to celebrate a second honeymoon. Jeremiah said in God’s name, “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown” (Jer. 2:2). For both prophets, the wilderness years were the time of the first love between God and the Israelites. That, I suggest to you, is what the spies did not want to leave.
They did not want to let go of the intimacy and innocence of childhood and enter the adult world. Every parent faces the time when a certain measure of separation must occur for their child to become an adult. Ultimately, I suggest for your consideration, that the spies feared freedom and its responsibilities.
But that is what Torah is all about.
The Torah is not about retreat from the world, but engagement with the world. The Torah is a template for the construction of a society with all its gritty details: laws of warfare and welfare, harvests and livestock, loans and employer-employee relationships, the code of a nation in its land, part of the real world of politics and economics, yet somehow pointing to a better world where justice and compassion, love of the neighbor and stranger, are not lofty and philosophical ideals but principles worked out in peoples’ everyday lives. God chose Israel to make His presence visible in the world. To affect this world one must live in it, not hide in a quiet desert.
Certainly, throughout history, there have been some ascetics among the Jewish people, but these were the exceptions, not the rule. This is not the destiny of God’s people as communities of faith, to live outside time and space in ashrams or monasteries as the world’s recluses.
The spies did not want to contaminate Judaism by bringing it into contact with the real world. They sought the eternal childhood of God’s protection and the endless honeymoon of His all-embracing love. There is something noble about this desire, but also something profoundly irresponsible that de-moralised the people and provoked God’s anger. For the Torah, as the constitution of the Jewish nation under the sovereignty of God, is about building a society in the land of Israel that so honors human dignity and freedom that it will one day lead the world to say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deut. 4:6).
In Tune with Torah this week = Our duty is not to fear the real world but to enter and transform it. That is what the spies did not understand. Do we understand it even now?