The Spies and Leadership in Times of Crisis

This week’s Torah portion begins with a well-known story. The Israelites have left Mount Sinai and are preparing to enter the Promised Land. God instructs Moses to select 12 scouts to check out the Land of Israel and report back what they see there.

Moses tells the scouts: “Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And be sure to bring back some of the fruit of the land.” [Numbers 13:17-20]

So the scouts go check out the land. They cut a branch of fresh grapes so large it needs to be carried between two of them. (By the way, that became the symbol of the modern Israeli Ministry of Tourism – the two scouts shlepping a huge branch of grapes between them.) And they took some figs and pomegranates as well. After 40 days they return to Moses and the Israelites with their report.

The twelve scouts were each leaders of their respective tribes.  They showed everyone the lush fruit they had collected and they said: the land is indeed a land flowing with milk and honey just as we were told. BUT, the “people who live there are powerful and the cities are fortified and very large.” [13:28]

The Israelites were dismayed.  Then Caleb, the scout from the Tribe of Judah, tried to calm the people, assuring them that they could conquer the land.

But the other scouts doubled-down on their fear-mongering report. The land, they said, “devours its inhabitants. … The people are giants. … And we looked like grasshoppers … to them.” [13:32-33] In other words, they will squash us like bugs.

Well, that threw the Israelites into a fitful frenzy. Once again they complain to Moses as they had so many times before ever since they left Egypt: Moses why did you take us out of slavery? If only you had left us to die in Egypt, or if only we could just die right here in the wilderness. Why take us to a land where we will die in a gruesome battle. Let’s go back to Egypt!

From their perspective, any attempt to conquer the Land would be a life that is “nasty, brutish and (all too) short”. (Paraphrasing Thomas Hobbes)

Then, Joshua, Moses’ assistant from the tribe of Ephraim, who was also one of the scouts, now joins Caleb and the two of them plead with the Israelites: The land is a good land. God is with us. If we follow God’s plan we can do this, we can conquer the land and settle there. We just need to have some faith and courage. Do not be afraid. Do not listen to those who are trying to terrify you and distract you from our mission.

But the people threatened to stone them to death. And that’s when God lost it. God had had enough of the Israelites complaining. God threatened to wipe out the entire Israelite population right then and there and start over with just Moses.

But Moses interceded. “You promised, God, when the Israelites sinned with the Golden Calf, that you would not destroy them. [Numbers 14:17-18 – referring back to Exodus 33:17-19] You promised that if we reminded you of your Attributes of Mercy, you would forgive them. [Rosh Hashanah 17b commenting on Exodus 34:6-7] So I am reminding you of those attributes of kindness and mercy right now. Please forgive them.

Besides. What would the neighbors say? (No, really, that’s pretty much what Moses says to God.) You have a reputation to uphold now. Everyone in this part of the world knows how You, God, took this lowly enslaved people out from Egypt with powerful miracles and how you lead them now through the wilderness with a pillar of cloud and a pillar of smoke every day. You are taking care of them. If you destroy them now, what would the neighbors say? That You were too weak to help them conquer the Land? [Numbers 14:13-16]

And using language we now quote in our Yom Kippur prayers when we ourselves seek God’s forgiveness, Moses says: “Pardon the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness.” And God replies: “I will pardon them as you have asked.” [Numbers 14:19-20]

BUT, God says, they asked to be left to die in the wilderness and I will grant their request. I will force them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years – one year for each of the 40 days the scouts were away – so that they all die off. Everyone over the age of 20 will die here in the wilderness and their children will then go in and conquer the land.

That’s the story. Pretty much the way it is described in the Torah. But we might want to ask ourselves, what exactly did the scouts do that upset God so much? Didn’t Moses ask them to report back what the land was like and what the inhabitants were like, whether the cities were fortified or not? All they did was come back with a report. The land is great, but the cities are well-fortified and the inhabitants are giants. In other words, didn’t they do what they were supposed to do? Report what they saw?

It seems to me that the scouts made two mistakes. First, they skewed the report to emphasize the dangers of conquering the land, and they downplayed the beauty and magnificence of the land. They focused on the perceived obstacles to achieving their goals. They terrified the people by conjuring up images of horror and calamity.

But, perhaps we should have some sympathy for them.  Don’t we often do the same thing in our own lives?  Aren’t we sometimes guilty of being pessimists instead of being optimists?  Nothing in life that is truly fulfilling and worthwhile can be obtained without some sacrifice. There is nothing in the world that is all good or all bad, all benefit and no cost, all pro and no con.  The problem for us is to assess whether the benefit outweighs the cost.  The ten spies over-emphasized the danger – particularly given their experiences over the preceding couple of years with God working miracles – and they under-emphasized the benefits: freedom in a beautiful land.

Their second mistake was that they failed to even consider strategies to overcome the obstacles.  Particularly as leaders of their tribes, these men should not have been so quick to throw in the towel.  They saw fortified cities and were terrified.  They didn’t stop to think: Hey, if we surround the city and blow our shofars really loudly, the walls might fall down! Caleb and Joshua were right: the challenges and difficulties of conquering the Land could be overcome if they only strategized and properly prepared for them.

That’s what good leaders are supposed to do. They should not be fear-mongering, or stoking unnecessary anger and aggression. They should not be demoralizing the people. Rather, they should inspire people with hope. They should encourage people with determination. They should be finding strategies to overcome the obstacles to achieving society’s goals. They should be guiding people on a path that will provide for a better future for everyone.

So this morning I want to quote from one of the great leaders of the 20th Century: Martin Luther King. His speeches were all truly inspiring. Perhaps hearing his words again today – more than half a century after he wrote them – can inspire us in this time of continuing societal disruption.

In March of 1965, Martin Luther King led his famous march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. On the steps of the State Capitol, he gave a speech which included these words, which seem to intentionally invoke the Biblical story of the Israelites wandering in the Wilderness:

Last Sunday, more than eight thousand of us started on a mighty walk from Selma, Alabama. We have walked through desolate valleys and across the trying hills. We have walked on meandering highways and rested our bodies on rocky byways. Some of our faces are burned from the outpourings of the sweltering sun. Some have literally slept in the mud. We have been drenched by the rains. … Our bodies are tired and our feet are somewhat sore. …

[But] We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man. ..;.

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” … Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?”

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, … however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, … because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” … How long? Not long, … because “no lie can live forever.” … How long? Not long, … because “you shall reap what you sow.” …

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice!

The night before King was assassinated three years later, on April 3, 1968, he gave another famous speech. In it he imagined that God had asked him if he had an opportunity to live in any age of human history, when would he want to be alive? He thought about the Exodus from Egypt, about the Greek philosopher, the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, President Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, the inspiring words of Franklin Roosevelt during the dark days of the Depression: “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

But King said, if I had my choice, this is the time I would choose to live. Even though, he admitted, it seemed a dark time. Because “only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world.

… we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history … . Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.

Toward the end of his speech he referred to threats that had been made on his life. But he concluded the speech with these words – again referring to the Israelites on the border of the Holy Land preparing to enter it:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

The next night, King was in fact assassinated. But his inspiring words and his powerful legacy will live forever.

Imagine if the 10 scouts in Moses’ time had made speeches like that instead of fear-mongering.

Imagine if they knew Rabbi Tarfon’s inspiring words: “Lo aleycha ha’melakhah ligmor, v’lo atah ben horin lehivatel mimenah.” “You are not obligated to complete the task but neither are you free to ignore it.” [Avot 2:16]

Imagine if they had spoken Theodor Herzl’s inspiring words: “Im tirtzu, ayn zo agadah.” “If you will it, it is no dream.”

But they didn’t. And the result was a 40-year set back in achieving their goal.

So at this time in our history when we are dealing with so much social strife amidst a terrible pandemic, let us not succumb to fear, or anger or divisiveness. Let us choose instead to come together to find ways to overcome the challenges and obstacles we face. Let us choose to have faith in God, the Creator of us all. Let us choose to have faith in each other. And let us strive together to create our own Promised Land right here, right now.

Let us imagine together what that Promised Land would look like as we gaze upon it from the mountain top. And with open hearts and open minds let us work together to bend the arc toward justice, peace, and prosperity for all.

About the Author
Rabbi Morgen is an Associate Rabbi of Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, TX. He has served on the Boards of the Houston Jewish Federation, and the local boards of the AJC, and the ADL. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He graduated from UCLA School of Law and practiced law in Los Angeles. He was ordained by JTS in 1998.
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