Parashat Shlah: An addiction to status

The failure of leadership seems impossible to comprehend. After all, God’s track record on behalf of the newly freed slave nation has been impeccable!

“... Send out men to explore the Land of Canaan that I gave to the Children of Israel, each one the representative of the tribe of his fathers, each one of them a (tribal) prince, every one a leader among them” (Numbers 13:2, 3).
The grave transgression of the desert generation was the sin of the scouts: the refusal of all but Joshua and Caleb to promote the conquest and settlement of the Land of Israel – the goal of the Exodus. Despite the divine guarantee of success (Exodus 6:6-8), despite the miraculous plagues, the splitting of the Re(e)d Sea, and Moses’s clear endorsement of the conquest, the 10 princes win the day and convince the Israelites to remain in the desert.
At this point in history, the failure of leadership seems impossible to comprehend. After all, God’s track record on behalf of the newly freed slave nation has been impeccable! What could possibly have made these tribal princes stop short of promoting the entry of the Jewish people onto the sacred soil of the land of their inheritance?
I believe a possible reason for the negativism of the 10 scouts lies in the way in which significant appointments were made among the Israelites. The talmudic sages pick up on what appears to be a superfluous verb in the account of the appointment of Bezalel as chief architect of the Sanctuary. The form of the verb is slightly different in the two almost identical mentions of Bezalel’s appointment. Initially, the text records: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Behold (Hebrew: Re’eh, See, singular), I have called by name Bezalel …;’” (Ex. 31:1-5). But in reviewing the appointment four chapters later, the Bible states: “And Moses said to the children of Israel, ‘Behold (Hebrew, Re’u, See, plural) the Lord has called by name Bezalel…’” (Ex. 35: 30-35) The verb “behold” is not really necessary, and the switch from singular to plural requires explanation.
The Talmud provides a fascinating – and very modern – interpretation (B.T. Brachot 55a). Rabbi Yitzhak interprets the verb “behold” or “see” to indicate the request for consent or approval. He derives from this the principle that, “It is improper to appoint a leader over a congregation without their consent.” Hence, God first says, “Behold, or See” to Moses, an individual, to obtain his consent to God’s appointment of Bezalel as chief architect of the Sanctuary: Moses then seeks the approval of the entire congregation, using the plural form. In effect, therefore, even divine appointments required the democratic consent of the people.
Fascinatingly, as Judaism developed, the democratic way of electingleaders became more and more accepted. The Judges who ruled afterJoshua were charismatic individuals chosen by public assent; and eventhe appointment of kings seemed to depend on the vox populi: “When youshall come to the land which the Lord God is giving you and if youshall say, “Place over us a king like all the nations roundabout, thenyou shall appoint for yourself a king…” (Deut. 17:14,15; see Netzivcommentary). Maimonides rules that in the absence of a prophet orSanhedrin, the king was to be elected by the majority of Israelites(Commentaries on Mishna, Kritot 1:1). Throughout theMiddle Ages, Jewish communities were governed by seven goodrepresentatives who were publicly elected (HoshenMishpat).
Taking all this into account, it seems logical to assume that each ofthe 12 scouts had been elected by his tribe. If the chief architect ofthe Sanctuary required public assent, certainly the prince of eachtribe required the approbation of the majority of that tribe in orderto hold the office of nasi (president). It also stands to reason thatwere the Israelites to conquer and settle the Promised Land, dividingtheir patrimony in accordance with sectarian tribal needs, newelections would be in order.
I would suggest that everything I have written so far was understood aswell – and even better – by the scouts. They were certainly honorablemen, who – on the conscious level – would not be influenced by thepossibility of losing office. But the subconscious desire to retainhonor and power works in devious ways. The Ba’al Haturim in hiscommentary explains that the subconscious fear of new electionsprompted the 10 princes to lobby in favor of the desert status quorather than risk conquering and settling the Promised Land.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah StoneColleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.