Shelach Lecha: Two Truths

Posted on June 16, 2023 by Ed Tolman

This week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, from the Book of Numbers, begins with the familiar story of the 12 spies sent out to scout the Land of Israel, The Promised Land. As Rabbi Plaut in his Chumash points out, the titular words, Shelach Lecha could mean “send out” as in God commanding Moses to send out the scouts or Shelach Lecha could be interpreted as “go ahead and send out” the scouts, as in God giving Moses permission to do what he, Moses, was going to do in the first place. In any event, scouts from each of the twelve tribes are sent to see what lies in front of the people of Israel, what the people of the new land are like and what can be found there, and they are sent with specific instructions to bring back fruit from the new land. After 40 days of scouting the land, the spies report back that the place is indeed a land of “milk and honey”, which, by the way, might well refer to the fauna of the land, specifically the goats there that supply milk and the honey bees that pollinate the vegetation. They all report back that the cities are heavily fortified and that the inhabitants are powerful and physically very large. While Caleb tells Moses that they should go forward to conquer the land, ten of spies say otherwise, spreading, as Plaut interprets, calumnies among the Israelite that the inhabitants of the land are so great in size that they make the Israelites appear as if they are grasshoppers and that the Israelites would be devoured if they tried to enter and conquer the new land. The people become so terrified that they even voice a desire to return to Egypt. For that lack of faith, God threatens to wipe out all the people, but after intercession by Moses, the people, those above age twenty and with the exception of Caleb and Joshua and their tribes, are condemned to die in the desert, ie, not to reach the Promised Land.

The portion concludes with instructions about sacrifices or offerings to God, the treatment of the stranger living amongst the people, the setting aside of a loaf or challah of bread as a gift for God, the observance of Shabbat, and the laws of tzitzit, to be looked upon as reminders of God’s commandments.

I was struck by the relevance, the unfortunate relevance, of the story of the spies to present times, and in particular, to the political and even cultural worlds around us. All the spies had to have seen the same landscapes, the same towns, and the same people, but two different truths, two different realities were reported back to Moses and the people. It should be noted that when the story of the spies is recounted by Moses in the first chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, he claims it was the people, not God, who told him to send out the spies. Though a topic for discussion at another time, it seems again like we have two truths, two realities emerging about the same story.

In our country today, perhaps in other places around the world, we find people emerging from the observations of the same event and happenings with different truths. Not just different opinions of the subjective, but different truths when observing what is unquestionably the same. At the very, very least, the crime of breaking and entering was committed, observed and well documented in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021. Yet there are those who saw what was seen clearly by all, still believe and hold that what occurred was an example of a constitutional, legal right of free assembly. It was even “a peaceful tour” of the capital building. We all observe the same effects of climate change, no snow in NJ this past winter or receding glaciers and ice flows or smoke hiding the sky, but different truths emerge. Climate change is real; climate change is a hoax! With a background in science, I understand that the same data can often lead to different interpretations, but, in the end, a single truth must and will emerge after proper experimentation. One wonders how some can, in the face of incontrovertible and even visual evidence, come to untenable and unreal conclusions, that is alternative truths.

In his essay on Parashat Shelach Lecha, the late Rabbi Harvey Fields discusses how various modern and not so modern commentators interpret why the 10 scouts who reported back so negatively did so. Perhaps, the interpretation of these commentators can help us understand the “why” of alternative or second truths in our present day. Some early interpreters say that the spies who reported negatively to Moses and the people wantonly conspired to destroy the whole enterprise of entering the Promised Land. Some say that those spies knowingly rejected the whole idea of the Land of Israel. The commentators Sforno and Peli seem to suggest that the plan was to demoralize the Israelites. Nehama Leibowitz points out that the scouts deliberately “salt” their lies with modica of truth, to give their lies the appearance of objectivity. Others suggest that the spies not only are deceiving the people, but that they are also deceiving themselves. Rabbi Nancy Weiner suggests that they processed what they saw through the lens of their own personal experiences, emotions and expectations and they reported what they saw as truth in the contexts of their own personal lives. The spies are accused by the Ramban (Nachmanidis) of deliberately withholding information and clearly trying to undermine the leadership of Moses. Rabbi Morris Adler tells us that the spies were trying to undermine the confidence of the people; to bring panic and disillusionment. They wanted to subvert the dream of achieving the Promised Land, where freedom, justice and peace would prevail. Perhaps, as Rabbi Fields suggests, these spies had low, personal self-esteem and self-respect, leading to fear of others.

Self-delusion; lack of self-respect; deliberate meanness; preference for the negative over the positive; willingness to be destructive versus constructive; self-aggrandizement. Two truths; alternative realities.

Aldus Huxley, the early 20th century English writer and philosopher, wrote, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

Rabbi Fields tells us that the greatest sin of the spies grew out of their lack of self-respect and that we can only conquer Promised Lands when we believe in ourselves. I add further that if we are to go on successfully in our country and even in our own lives, we cannot choose to ignore facts. We cannot create our own truths. We must accept and even welcome and encourage diversity of opinion, but we should not and cannot choose to alter reality. We must face and accept facts and deal with them as they are, though how we deal with them would well profit from a diversity of input.

Maimonides wrote, “Let the truth and right by which you are apparently the loser be preferable to you to the falsehood and wrong by which you are apparently the winner.”

Finally, Rabbi Chaim Stern wrote, “Grant me the wisdom to understand that to be honest in word and deed is more than one option among others. Help me to live by the light of truth that is eternal, acknowledging that some things do not change with the seasons.”

Shabbat shalom,

Ed Tolman