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And it shall be to you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that you seek not after your own heart and your own eyes.
– Numbers 15:39
This week’s Torah portion tells the story of Moses sending spies to reconnoiter the land of Canaan, prior to the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land. In a nutshell, the book of Numbers is about leadership, about the transition from wandering desert tribes centered around a single charismatic leader — Moses — to a functioning society with a hierarchy and a leadership structure. In last week’s portion, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, leaves the Israelites to return to his own people, the Midianites. Jethro was the person who first introduced the idea of a hierarchical division of responsibilities (Ex. 18), which enabled Moses to delegate the responsibilities of leadership. Now, however, the tribes which comprise the desert clan are beginning to coalesce around their own important figures, and a struggle for dominance is emerging. It is just at this point that Jethro announces he is returning to his home, and Moses, almost in desperation, begs him to stay. But Jethro goes off, and the remainder of the book of Numbers recounts a sequence of problems and failures of leadership.
The story of the spies, recounted in this portion, is a defining episode in the history of the Jewish nation. Moses sends twelve men, leaders of the tribes of Israel, to spy out the land of Canaan in order to form a plan for the upcoming Israelite entry and conquest. He explicitly instructs them to list the characteristics of the land and to scout out its people; in other words, military intelligence gathering (Num. 13:17–20).
When the spies return, they give a straightforward and accurate accounting of their observations, including the difficulties the people will encounter in attempting to conquer the land. They are interrupted when Caleb, one of the twelve spies, jumps up and exhorts the people to go, heedless of whatever difficulties may lie ahead (13:30–33). The other men shout him down, with the exception of Joshua, who remains silent. This dramatic sequence results in the Israelites’ being condemned to wander the wilderness for forty years. God reacts far more harshly to disbelief than to disobedience.
The portion ends with the passage enjoining the Israelites to make fringes on the corners of their cloaks, a practice we continue to observe to this day (15:37–41). One occasionally observes Jews with strings hanging down over their belts. These are fringes tied on a four-cornered undergarment in ongoing observance of this biblical command.
The reason we are enjoined to wear these fringes is “that you may see them and remember all God’s commandments and do them; and do not go exploring after the impulses of your heart or what you see with your eyes and stray after them” (15:39).
In the Torah, the sense of sight is problematic. At the moment of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, we are told that the Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the shore, and saw the mighty hand that God had raised against Egypt, and upon seeing, they believed in God and in God’s servant Moses (Ex. 14:30–31). In this week’s portion, however, the men who saw clearly, and who accurately reported what they saw, are punished, while the ones who deny the clear evidence of their own eyes — Caleb and Joshua — are rewarded. They are the only males of the generation that left Egypt who will survive to enter the land of Canaan.
The passage from the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the ensuing Song of the Sea (Ex. 15:1–19) are read in the daily Jewish prayer service each morning. They are uncomfortable reminders that we continually seek concrete proof of God, and a challenge to us to recognize that true faith does not rest on factual corroboration.
The Israelites are surrounded by miracles, but no sooner is one miracle performed for us than we turn around and accuse God of abandoning us. We lived through the miracles and the plagues in Egypt; we were saved, and saw the Egyptians dead, at the Sea of Reeds; we were fed manna and given water from a miraculous well in the wilderness. And yet, in this week’s portion, we can’t believe that the God who brought us this far will help us overcome the obstacles and take possession of the Promised Land.
There are multiple failures of leadership in this portion. Moses doesn’t take full control of the discussion when the spies return; the spies trot out all the problems, but fail to offer solutions; Caleb is all rah-rah about the opportunity to inherit the land, but he fails utterly to address the very real specific objections of the other spies. In the absence of strong leadership, we fall apart as a people. (Notably, it is Josua, who remains silent at first, who will be appointed leader pon the death of Moses, a task for which he will not be fully prepared — and which of us is?)
After all this spying out the land, the portion ends with a warning against believing what we see. In Hebrew, the verb used for “exploring after the impulses of your heart or what you see with your eyes” is the identical verb meaning “to spy.” The message is clear: if you need to see in order to believe, you will not succeed. If you need to be shown the truth again and again, you really have no faith. Your mind and your soul are disconnected from one another and so you can learn nothing.
It’s difficult to maintain our personal spiritual equilibrium. We find ourselves returning for nourishment. We return to daily prayer, to study, to contemplation, all to reinforce ourselves spiritually. In fact, as the verses say, to remind ourselves of God’s gifts to us, and of God’s requirements of us.
As people functioning in the world, we need to be able to bring together the concrete reality of the world with our inner spirituality. True success for the individual comes from the ability to hold seemingly contradictory ideas, or at least disjointed ones, and make them work together. Think of it; when we say something is paradoxical, we are actually saying: I don’t believe that reality has it right. In truth, when we find something to be a paradox, it is because our mind is not sophisticated enough to embrace it. It’s called cognitive dissonance. And the ability to live with it, and to derive certainty from doubt, is what makes individual success possible. The ability to communicate that certainty in ways that help inspire others is what makes for true leadership.
Over and over again, we are exhorted to look at the world from God’s perspective. Don’t believe what you see, the Torah is telling us. Rather, look into the world and see that which you believe. Believe in yourself and keep the faith.
Yours for a better world.