We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning, since the world’s been turning
Billy Joel wrote these words in 1989. But it could have been written 3,500 years ago by the Israelites in the Sinai Desert. In this week’s Torah portion, Shlach, there is all the intrigue a reader can ask for. But the page-turner stops with tragedy for the Jewish people.
The Lord spoke to Moses saying, “Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel. You shall send one man each for his father’s tribe; each one shall be a chieftain in their midst.” [Numbers. 13:1-2]
Here’s the scene: Moses makes another attempt to follow G-d’s commandment for the Israelites to go home to the land of their forefathers. The road is open, and the flock seems ready and willing.
And once again the elite intervenes.
The Midrash says the princes of the tribes were opposed to reaching the Land of Canaan. In the desert, they were the powerbrokers. Once they regained their homeland, they might be replaced. They were determined to sabotage this mission.
The princes, all prominent scholars and leaders, first told Moses that he should organize a scout party to enter Canaan. The Israelites would need to decide on the best route, what to avoid, the layout, the people, crops and water quality. Moses, being a reasonable man, agreed. G-d was skeptical.
The 12 princes spent 40 days crisscrossing Canaan. They returned with giant grapes, figs and pomegranates. They told the Jews that indeed this was a land with flowing milk and honey. Then came the bottom line:
There is no way [we can conquer them] because the people are strong and they dwell in the land, in extremely large fortified cities…[Numbers 13:28]
Suddenly, everything went wrong. This was not a fact-finding mission. It was a disinformation campaign to scare the people from advancing toward Canaan.
Moses Ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, says the princes were relentless. They piled lie upon lie in their effort to sow panic and dissension. They said the Jews would die in their new homes. It was a land that “consumed its inhabitants.” The only ones who could survive were giants, who thought the scout party was a bunch of grasshoppers. Some of the lies they spread openly. Others were “leaked” to the people, perhaps under the phrase “informed sources said.”
To block any other narrative, the princes joined forces with the mixed multitude, the Egyptian exiles who followed the Israelites into the desert and responsible for the tragedies of the Golden Calf and the quail. In other words, the Israelite leadership found common ground with those who sought to undermine the Jewish people. And all this to maintain power.
Finally, G-d intervened. The leadership would be punished measure for measure. The generation of those between 20 and 60 would die in the desert and never see the promised land. The latter decree seemed unfair. The plain folk were the victims of vicious propaganda. What could you expect from people who naturally accepted authority and their narrative? Moreover, the naysayers among the princes were the clear majority.
The answer is that people are not supposed to be robots — blindly following their leaders. They have the duty to question, seek information and express doubts. The Israelites knew what Moses had told the princes: They were to gather facts about Canaan. They were never authorized to decide whether the Jews should arrive in Canaan. By what right did the princes overstep their mission?
The people could have supported Moses, who argued that the Israelites were under G-d’s protection. How else then would they have been able to throw off the yoke of slavery in the most powerful empire of the world? How else would they have survived in the desert? You didn’t need a Ph.D to figure that out.
But the ease with which the Israelites were manipulated by a treasonous leadership demonstrated their lack of faith in G-d. The people again gave way and allowed the Egyptians to determine their fate. And they were demanding that the entire Israelite nation return to the land where they had been slaves.
When the dust had settled the Jewish people were plunged into depression. A group of Israelites had defied Moses and headed for Canaan on their own. Without G-d’s protection, they were massacred. Millions of people understood that they would wander the desert until their dying day.
And G-d spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them, ‘When you will come to the land of your dwelling that I will give you… [Numbers. 15:1-2]
The Ramban says this was G-d’s message of hope to His children. They or their offspring would eventually be led to their land. The next generation might sin — perhaps in the same way as their fathers. But G-d would bring them into Israel all the same.
Billy Joel might even agree.