The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Shelach Lecha , Numbers 13:1-15:41
Don't just follow the crowd

by Avraham ben Yaakov

The Torah does not hold back from exposing the failures and shortcomings of even the foremost leaders of Israel , in order to provide clear, true instruction for all the generations. A case in point is the story in our portion about the gratuitous slander spread by ten of the twelve tribal leaders whom Moses sent from the wilderness in order to tour and report on the Promised Land. Their slander brought a decree of death upon the entire generation of adults who accepted it, forty years of wandering in the wilderness for their children, the destruction of the First and Second Temples and numerous other tragedies in later generations.

It is surmised that the ten spies who brought back an evil report feared that as soon as the people would enter the Promised Land, they themselves would loose the prestigious positions of tribal leadership that they enjoyed in the wilderness. Accordingly they sought to paint a fearsome picture of a land inhabited by unconquerable giants and other enemies in order to strike terror into the hearts of the people and undermine their will to go there. Whether the spies really believed what they said or not, they presented a seemingly irrefutable case for abandoning the national mission because of apparently insurmountable obstacles.

The power of evil speech

The ten evil spies knew better than to spread outright lies about the Promised Land. They opened their report to Moses and the people by stating what everyone already knew - that it was indeed a land "flowing with milk and honey" (Numbers 13:21; cf. Exodus 3:8). For they well understood that "every falsehood that does not start with a modicum of truth will not stand up in the end" (Rashi ad loc.). Their success as slanderers lay in the skill with which they used "spin" to present a series of apparently undeniable "facts" that would automatically lead their listeners to draw exactly the conclusions they wanted them to draw:

"The land through which we passed to spy it out is a land that eats up its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak (the giant). and we were in our own sight like grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight. " (Numbers 13:32-33).

This last statement was the "punch line" that broke the people's hearts despite the intrinsic fallacy in their argument - because even if the spies felt like grasshoppers compared to the giants they saw, it did not necessarily follow that this was how those giants perceived them. Even a tiny creature like a wasp or a scorpion can strike terror in the heart of a much larger creature! But because the wicked spies had lost their confidence that God was with them, they lost their confidence in themselves!

The majority are not necessarily right

Yet two of the twelve spies refused to join in the conspiracy of the other ten. One was Joshua - leader of the tribe of Ephraim - who had from his youth been Moses' attendant (Numbers 11:28) and moreover received a special blessing from his master (ibid. 13:16). This was what gave Joshua the strength to resist the machinations of his fellow spies. But what was it that fortified Caleb, representative of the tribe of Judah , giving him the courage to stand up against ten tribal princes who undoubtedly wielded tremendous authority and influence?

Caleb evidently understood that the mere fact that the other ten spies were in the majority did not make them right.

The Torah itself teaches the principle that when leaders and judges do not concur in matters of national counsel and legal judgment, we are obliged to follow the majority view. However, this applies only when the majority opinion accords with Torah law, but not when the majority are bent on evil: "You shall not follow a multitude to do evil, neither shall you bear witness in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to pervert justice" (Exodus 23:2; see Rashi ad loc.).

Caleb courageously demonstrated his determination to abide by what was right and true even when he was in danger of being stoned by the mob.

And Caleb stilled the people toward Moses, and said: 'We should go up at once and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it' (Numbers 13:30).

'If God favors us, He will bring us into this land, and give it to us - a land flowing with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against God, and do not fear the people of the land. for God is with us; do not fear them' (ibid. 14:7-9).

Caleb and the "giants"

Caleb had seen the physically imposing giants that dwelled in the land, but he was not unnerved because he bound himself to far greater giants - giants of the spirit. These were the founding fathers of Israel , Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to whom God had explicitly promised the land and who now lay in their resting place in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron .

The Torah sages teach that while the other spies were proceeding with their tour of the land, Caleb - who already sensed their evil intentions - took a detour to visit Hebron to pray at the graves of the patriarchs. There is a hint of this in our portion in Numbers 13:22, where the text states that " they went up by the south and he came to Hebron ". In the Hebrew text " they went" is a plural verb while " he came" is in the singular. That it was Caleb who stepped foot in Hebron is explicitly confirmed by the Biblical texts in Deuteronomy 1:36, Joshua ch. 14 vv. 9, 12 & 13 and ch. 15 vv. 13-14 and Judges 1:20.

It was not some baseless, overblown self-confidence that made Caleb imagine that the people of Israel could overcome the many obstacles that appeared to stand in their way in entering the Promised Land. Rather it was his absolute faith and trust in God's supreme power, which he fortified by binding himself to the patriarchs, the founding fathers of this faith. This was what gave Caleb the courage to defy the seeming giants that dwelled in Hebron , and to defy the authority and influence of ten leading "giants" and princes of his own people when he clearly saw that they were wrong.

Today's fearsome giants

Today many new breeds of "giants" stand in the way of those who seek to understand the true meaning and purpose of our lives in this world and who yearn to follow the Torah path of justice, goodness and kindness. Among these obstructing "giants" are the great media empires that hold millions and millions under the spell of their daily torrents of subtle, skillfully-crafted messages propagating the rejection of traditional faith and belief and the embrace of every kind of licentiousness. Other such giants are the tyrannical regimes, international organizations and other mass pressure groups that endlessly repeat blatant lies, shamelessly distorting the language of morality and ethics to rationalize cruel injustices.

From Caleb we must learn to have the courage not to go after the masses just because they may be a numerical majority, for this does not make them right. We must think for ourselves and fearlessly search for the truth, binding ourselves to the Torah - eternal fountain of truth - and to the righteous sages who have followed and taught it in all the generations.




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