Just the Facts

Reliable, complete, accurate and unbiased reports of the facts are essential to good decision-making. More often than not ferreting out the facts is a process. Real life doesn’t appear to imitate the relaxed methodology of Sergeant Joe Friday, in the 1950’s popular television police drama Dragnet, who would patiently ask for and receive just the facts.

All too often, we are provided with less than reliable or incomplete versions of the facts. Sometimes, it might even be a false narrative, planted by some partisan or biased source, which through repetition assumes an aura of credibility that is undeserved. There may also be clever omissions designed to fit a narrative, which can be every bit as misleading as actual fabrications. Even more insidious, though, is when opinions are masqueraded as facts, by otherwise ostensibly credible sources.

When facts and opinions are seamlessly blended, the result is often a particularly lethal form of propaganda. It is nearly impossible to discern what is fact and what is opinion, when listening to a presentation given by a genuine expert, with an agenda, absent independent verification. Believing in the justness of a cause is an extremely powerful motivator. The temptation, in effect, to become an opinion maker, instead of a neutral reporter of the facts, can be irresistible; especially to an unscrupulous ideologue. Nevertheless, no matter how virtuous the cause may be, masquerading opinion and advice as factual reporting can result in catastrophic consequences.

This is not a new problem. The Bible[1] records one of the most infamous cases of this abuse, in what is commonly known as the Sin of the Spies. They are typically referred to in Hebrew as the ‘Meraglim[2]’ and that term is usually translated as the Spies. However, another possible interpretation based on the root ‘regel’, meaning foot, in modern parlance might be the traditional ‘shoe-leather’ reporters. Moses chose a total of twelve great and astute individuals to be the Meraglim, one from each of the Tribes. He assigned them the job of being reporters, who toured the land and stated just the facts; they were not supposed to offer opinions. However, as Rabbi Isaac Arama, a fifteenth century Sage points out[3], ten of them (the Ten) did not perform their job properly. Instead, they acted like pundits, dispensing advice and, in effect, abused their position of trust to further their own agenda, as more fully discussed below. To put this in perspective, this seemingly modern affectation is at the heart of this infamous chapter in Biblical history, which occurred a few months after the second anniversary[4] of the miraculous Exodus from Egypt, approximately three thousand years ago.

They did tour the land, including returning with samples of the produce, as Moses instructed. However, as the Talmud[5] points out, they did not set out with open minds. Their intent, from the very outset of the mission, was to bad-mouth the land and discourage the people from proceeding with entering and inheriting it. This should have been a disqualifying bias, but to effectuate their plan they had to keep it hidden. Their motive may have seemed virtuous to them, as discussed below, but their actions were wicked. Whatever their intent, the result was cataclysmic both for them and the people they should have faithfully served.

The report of the Ten began favorably enough by recounting how the land flowed with milk and honey and pointing to the fruit they had brought back with them. However, then came the ‘but’ and it wasn’t pretty. The Ten proceeded to identify daunting problems concerning the fierce nature of the inhabitants and their impregnable defenses and concluded they were insurmountable; only Caleb and Joshua dissented.

The false narrative of invincibility of the inhabitants took hold and it caused irremediable consternation among most of the people, who now believed they were incapable of conquering the land. Caleb vainly tried to calm everyone down and restore confidence that the challenges could be overcome; but his efforts were for naught. The people railed against Moses and Aaron and they were powerless in the face of the onslaught. G-d intervened to save them and imposed what amounted to a life-sentence of wandering the desert, until the entire generation passed away. It would be the new generation of those under twenty at the time, together with Joshua and Caleb, who would inherit the promised land of Israel.

The notorious Ten were clever. They had predetermined what their findings would be even before they left. Hence, their glib use of the Biblical idiom of ‘efes[6]’ to preface their resoundingly negative report, after dissembling a kinder introduction[7]. It was the proverbial ‘but’; but even more emphatic, like the modern slang, ‘not for nothing’. It was just a slur, initially masked by some disarming complimentary remarks to lend to its credibility and to assure its pernicious efficacy. Indeed, as the Talmud[8] notes, the most effective slanders are those clothed with the introduction of a truthful statement. Nachmanides[9] explains the use of the term efes was meant to convey that it was impossible to conquer the land.

The acceptance by the Ten of Moses’ charge was just a subterfuge. They used the mission as a means to marshal arguments against proceeding to inherit the land of Israel, instead of gaining useful intelligence about how to accomplish it. Besides the myth of invincibility, according to the Shelah[10], they also created a false narrative that ascribed an invented merit to the wicked Canaanites, because they were able to return unharmed. This was despite the ability of the mighty giant warriors they witnessed to crush them. They conveniently left out the fact that their safe return had nothing to do with the wishes of the inhabitants; but, rather, was due either to Moses’ brilliant planning[11] or a miracle. They also inappropriately challenged the overall moral superiority of their brethren relative to the notoriously evil Canaanites. They did this by selectively over-emphasizing any faults they detected in them. However, the criticism they leveled was not for the purpose of causing anyone to correct and improve themselves. They did it merely to undermine everyone’s confidence, by insisting the people as a whole were somehow unworthy and, therefore, better just to maintain the status quo in the wilderness.

These approaches are eerily similar to the propaganda techniques used by those determined, G-d forbid, to eliminate the State of Israel and disassociate Jews from any connection to the land of Israel. The arguments are absurd. The connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, including Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria is irrefutable[12] and Israel is a democratic and free country, with a full range of civil rights benefiting all of its diverse citizenry. This is in stark contrast to the lack of democracy and civil rights in the PA controlled areas and Hamas controlled Gaza, where, for example, there is rampant domestic physical and mental abuse of women in the home and systemic discrimination, mistreatment and exploitation of women[13].

That the Ten acted improperly is a given and because of their actions, their entire generation save Caleb and Joshua suffered. However, what was their motivation? The Zohar is scathing in its critique of their intentions and it describes how they were motivated by selfishness. They were determined to abort the effort to inherit the land of Israel because they were concerned they would no longer be the leaders of the people in the new land.

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter[14], the first Gerer Rebbe, known as the Chiddushe HaRim[15], is more forgiving. He describes their goal was to frustrate everyone leaving the idyllic existence they enjoyed in the wilderness. He notes that life in the wilderness was not so bad. G-d miraculously provided everything they needed, without having to work for it. They were sustained by the manna from heaven and ample water by way of Miriam’s miraculous traveling well. They lived a virtually spiritual existence and were able wholly to devote themselves to Torah study. They reasoned how would everyone be able to maintain this elevated level of spirituality once they had to work hard for a living, as farmers in the new land[16]?

The Ten and most of their generation, who they were able to influence with this misguided philosophy, misapprehended the very nature of our existence and how genuine faith in G-d is manifested. Our mission is both to live a natural life in this world and inculcate it with spirituality. This may sound esoteric; but the Torah provides a guide for how this is accomplished through performance of the commandments.

Faith is demonstrated by a farmer, every planting season, when the land is plowed and the seeds are planted. There is no assurance that the seeds will mature into crops and yet a farmer goes about the task of doing so, as an article of faith. Faith is strengthened by witnessing the labor rewarded at harvest time. Yet, even when the results are not as bounteous as the farmer might have hoped for, the planting cycle begins anew. That is true faith and, similarly, a businessperson embarking on a new venture. Indeed, the copious efforts made by so many to develop and improve this world are based on a most optimistic assumption that they will succeed, which, at its heart, is a matter of faith. As Einstein noted, there are two ways to live your life; one is as though nothing is a miracle and the other is as though everything is a miracle. He also noted G-d does not play dice with the universe.

How as a practical matter do we imbue the physical aspects of life with spirituality? The Shelah[17] derives a template based on proximity of the Sin of the Spies to the Mitzvah of Challah, which requires setting aside a piece of the dough to be baked into bread, as a gift to the Kohanim. Making bread is a quintessential act of human creativity. It doesn’t exist in nature. The basic ingredients are natural; wheat, water and yeast. However, the wheat first has to be ground into flour, then combined with water and yeast and kneaded into dough and permitted to rise. It’s then formed into the shapes that will be transformed into bread, once baked. The result, when eaten, nurtures the body. Setting aside a piece of the dough for the Kohanim nurtures the soul. This is the essence of our mission on earth. We live a physical life; but devote a part of it to helping others. It is how we make the ordinary extraordinary. The Sefat Emet[18] notes that the requirement to wash hands before eating the bread is another method by which we imbue this process with sanctity. In this regard, it is suggested that the requirement to make a blessing both before and after eating also inculcates spirituality into what might otherwise be a mundane aspect of ordinary life.

The Mitzvah of hospitality also takes on a special meaning in this context. As Avot D’Rabbi Natan[19] reports, in a world where we no longer have the Temple and sacrifices to offer for atonement, Gemillat Chesed serves this same important function. The Talmud[20] expresses a similar concept, by noting so long as the Temple stood, the sacrificial Altar facilitated atonement for the Jewish people. Now, a person’s dining table has taken the place of the Altar in the Temple and it provides atonement through the Mitzvah of feeding the poor[21] or guests[22].

The lessons of the Sin of the Spies are cogent. Life outside of Israel may be expedient; but don’t make the same mistake the Ten did in believing an unnatural existence and life outside of Israel is an ideal. Our mission in this world is to combine the physical and spiritual and there is no place more conducive to expressing this ideal in practice than in Israel. Moses so yearned to be there because it’s the only place where all the Mitzvot can be performed[23]. Whether we’re there physically or in spirit, we support a secure, strong and vital Israel. The agenda driven need to find fault with it is an anathema and led to the cataclysmic destruction of an entire generation. Let’s not make the same mistake.

Let’s focus our energies on the positive and make the ordinary, extraordinary.

[1] Numbers 13-14.

[2] Based on Moses’ reference to them in Deuteronomy 1:22-24. See also BT Sota 34b and Sanhedrin 109b, as well as, Sifre Devarim 20:1 and Mechilta D”Rabbi Yishmael 15:16.

[3] Akedat Yitzchak 77:1.

[4] Seder Olam Rabbah 8.

[5] BT Sota 34b.

[6] The term ‘efes’ literally meaning nothing.

[7] See Numbers 13:28.

[8] BT Sotah 35a.

[9] Ramban commentary on Numbers 13:27.

[10] Shnei Lucho HaBrit, Torah Shebichtav, Sh’lach, Torah Ohr.

[11] The inhabitants were distracted by the funeral of Iyov, according to BT Sota 35a and, in any event, they were able to travel unnoticed.

[12] See: Jerusalem or Louisiana, the Matter of Title Has Long Been Resolved, by the author, in the Times of Israel, dated 1/4/2018.

[13] See: Intersectional Rhapsody, by the author, in the Times of Israel, dated 7/3/2019.

[14] Chiddushe HaRim on the Torah, Parshat Sh’lach.

[15] After the title of the work he authored, loosely translated as the Novellae of Harav Yitzchak Meir.

[16] See also Sfat Emet on the Torah (Numbers, Sh’lach 10, 14 and 28), by Rav Yehuda Aryeh Leib, the grandson of the Chiddushe HaRim and the next succeeding Gerer Rebbe, who expands on this presentation.

[17] Shnei Luchot HaBrit, Torah Shebichtav, Sh’lach, Torah Ohr.

[18] Sefat Emet on the Torah, Numbers, Sh’lach 10.

[19] Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4:5.

[20] See BT Brachot (page 55a); Chaggigah (page 27a); and Menachot (page 97a).

[21] See Maharsha commentary on BT Brachot, page 55a.

[22] See Rashi and Tosafot commentaries on BT Menachot, at page 97a.

[23] BT Sota 14a.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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