Parshat Shelah: Believing is seeing

Our sages consider the refusal of the Israelites to enter Israel after hearing the report of the scouts to have been the worst transgression in the Bible.

Our sages consider the refusal of the Israelites to enter Israel after hearing the report of the scouts to have been the worst transgression in the Bible. And what we need to keep in mind is that these scouts, described as "princes" of their respective tribes, had not long before been part of a bedraggled beaten-down collection of slaves who had stood up to mighty Egypt - and won! These leaders had just seen with their own eyes the Divine Might unleashed against the Egyptian despot and his slave-based society, including the splitting of the Reed Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian cavalry. After such victories, how could they decide it would be impossible to conquer the Land? Furthermore, God Himself had told them - back when He first promised to remove them from Egypt - that "I shall bring you to the land which I lifted My hand in oath to give to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, and which I shall give to you as an everlasting inheritance for your descendants…" (Exodus 6:5). At the very least, the Egyptian experience should have taught them that even the weakest of armies derives unimaginable strength when its chief Commander is the Lord of Hosts. The Bible's unique usage of specific verb-forms provides what I believe is the solution to our problem regarding the scouts of nearly 4,000 years ago, as well as to one of our national problems today. The form used in this biblical context for the verb "to scout" is the Hebrew "tur": "And the Lord spoke to Moses saying, 'Send forth for yourself men who will scout out the land of Canaan which I am giving to the children of Israel' (Shelah …anashim vayaturu - Numbers 12:2)." Generally, the Hebrew verb for reconnaissance is hafer, or even more often ragol (see for example Deut. 1:22, 24 and Gen. 42:9, 14, 15). However, it is specifically in this story of the princes that we find the usage of tur - and we find it 12 times, paralleling the 12 tribal princes/scouts (see R. Elhanan Samet, Studies on the Weekly Biblical Portions, p.190). Moreover, our portion of Shelah concludes with what appears to be a misplaced commandment concerning the ritual fringes (tzitzit) - a commandment which seems to have no connection to the action of the scouts. Nevertheless, the same verb form tur appears: "You shall look at them [the ritual fringes]… and you shall not scout out [taturu, spy out, survey, consider] after your heart and eyes which you whore after, in order that you shall remember and perform all My commandments" (Numbers 16:39, 40). Additionally, the verb form "u'r'eetem," you [plural] shall see or look upon, appears three times in the Pentateuch, and two of those are in our portion: the first in the instructions Moses gives the scouts: "You shall see [or look upon or consider] the land, as to which qualities it contains" (Numbers 13:18), and the second in the passage of the ritual fringes, "You shall see [look upon or consider] the fringes and remember all the commandments of the Lord" (Numbers 15:39). Once again, we see a fascinating linguistic parallel between the sin of the scouts and the commandment of ritual fringes. Obviously there must be a connection between these two passages, but what is it? Both passages deal with the sense of sight, and the underlying question as to whether seeing is merely an objective, ocular exercise or whether one's subjective attitudes and preferences color everything we see. A case in point is the inhabitants of Canaan whom the scouts observed. The Bible records: "…And all the people whom we saw on it [the land] were people of great dimensions……We saw there the giants…" (Numbers 13:32-33). And then later on we read, "And so one individual [scout] said to the other: 'Let us make a [new] leader and return to Egypt' (Num. 14:4) However only one generation later, when Joshua conquers the Land, he also sends out scouts. These were hidden by Rahab, who lived among the very same "giants." "And she [Rahab] said to the men: 'I know that the Lord is giving this land to you, and that fear of you has fallen upon us; all the inhabitants of the land are melting before you'" (Joshua 2:9). We even declare in Moses's song at the Reed (Red) Sea, "… A trembling fear grasped the inhabitants of Philistia" (Ex. 15:14). Will the real nature of the Canaanites express itself? The truth is that just as "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," so is everything else. Our Torah portion actually explains what lay behind the scouts' exaggerated report concerning the Canaanites. The real sin of the scouts is to be found in the verse quoted above; they lost their sense of divine election, stopped believing in themselves and in the vital significance of their mission. Once they saw themselves as grasshoppers, that's how the enemy saw them as well! There is a well-known Mishna in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) which says it all: "Turn [the Torah] over and over again, for everything is in it. And with it shall you look…" So did Rabbi Mendelovitz, headmaster of the Torah VeDaath Academy, translate the passage: One must look at the world through the "lens" of Torah, and view every person and phenomenon from this perspective. It is incorrect to say that "seeing is believing." It is more correct to say that "believing is seeing," since our beliefs profoundly affect our visual perceptions. Did the Reed Sea split, or was the low tide of the "strong easterly wind" responsible for the safe crossing of the Israelites? Was the Six Day War a divinely wrought miracle or a reflection of the dismally poor military capacity of the Arab world? Are we Israelis occupying someone else's land by dint of our military strength, or are we re-settling areas which have been ours by divine promise for the past 4,000 years and were guaranteed to us again in the eyes of the world by the League of Nations? It all depends on how we view history, how we view ourselves, and how we view the divine Covenant! The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.