Shelah Lekha (Archives)
The Sin of the Spies
The incident of the men who were sent by Moses to spy out the Land of Canaan (Numbers 13-14) and returned with a frightening, discouraging report forms the central subject of this week’s parshah. This incident, like that of the sin of the Golden Calf, was seen as a major water-shed in the relations between God and Israel. It was as a result of this sin that the entire generation of the desert was condemned to remain in the desert for forty years, until all those who had been culpable adults at the time would die out.
The incident of the Spies is in many ways a kind of parallel or even mirror-image of that of the Golden Calf. Both play a central role in the biblical, and later in the midrashic, imagination. If the sin of the Golden Calf was a continental divide of the Humash (see Jacob Milgrom’s theory, which I cite in Ki Tisa), this is at least a fault line. As in the story of the Calf, here too the entire drama of sin, divine anger, Moses’ beseeching of God to forgive his people, and the ultimate message of Divine forgiveness—but with qualifications, and with the sense that something fundamental has changed—is reenacted. Quite a few verses here contain almost verbatim paraphrases of verses found in the chapter of the Calf: Moses’ argument that the Egyptians will say bad things about God, viz. that he had taken the Israelites out to slaughter them in the desert (14:13-16; cf. Exod 32:12); the invocation of the qualities of Divine mercy, first introduced in the Cleft of the Rock after the sin of the Calf (vv. 17-18; cf. Ex 34:6-7); the invocation of God to forgive (v. 19; cf. 34:9), etc. Moreover, several verses from this chapter play a central role in the Yom Kippur liturgy and in the Selihot (14:19-20; and also 15:26, taken from the halakhic section of the parashah). Like Exodus 33-34, this section too ends as a kind of repository of Divine forgiveness and atonement.
It seems to me that the gravity of the sin of the Spies is suggested, inter alia, by the language used to describe their punishment. Twice, in close succession, the Torah refers to the dead bodies of the members of this generation who will “fall in the desert” as pigreikhem (14:29, 32), the second person plural possessive of peger, “carcass.” This wording is extremely coarse, even crude; a contemporary Hebrew speaker would never use this term to refer to a human being, preferring guf (“body”), the neologism gufah, or at least geviyah (“corpse”). Unless the connotations of this word have changed beyond recognition since Biblical times (always a possibility), this usage seems intended to hint to the sensitive reader that these people have made themselves utterly despicable and even animal-like.
What was the nature of their sin, and why was it regarded so seriously? Unlike the sin of those who craved to eat flesh, or even that of Korah and his cohorts which appears in the following portion, the punishment for this one changed history. Why? The fundamental human fault displayed here is simple, raw fear. In religious terms, this is seen as tantamount to lack of bitahon, failure to trust in God, lack of confidence that what He did for them in the Exodus was undertaken for their good, and that they would ultimately come into the promised land. Had the report of the spies been accepted by the people, as it nearly was, it would have endangered the completion of the entire enterprise of the Exodus, the entry into and ultimate settling of Eretz Yisrael.
At this point, I would like to pose an obvious, almost silly question. What is so terrible about fear? Why do we see cowardice—less a vice or sin than a character fault—in such negative light? Isn’t the coward acting in a more rational way than the traditional hero, by hesitating to take foolish risks? Deep in our hearts, many of us, while we may condemn the scoundrel and the outlaw, also feel a certain admiration for his bravado, his independence, his ability to take risks, even if for lowly ends (look at Bonnie and Clyde and all the other Hollywood movies with outlaw heroes!), while for the coward we feel only contempt and loathing. But isn’t this feeling simple an archaic remnant of the classical masculine, martial, and machoistic virtues, exalting the ability to grit ones teeth and bear hardship? It seems to me that the nearly universal revulsion against cowardice goes deeper than that. The coward is a person who elevates his own personal survival, under all circumstances and at all costs, into an absolute. He is totally attached to his secure, comfortable, and possibly pampered existence. (Compare the Eastern idea of “attachment” as the root of all evil and all suffering) The brave man understands that there are certain situations, certain values and transcendent goals or ends, for which life itself must be risked; it is from this insight itself, and from a certain siy’ata dishmaya (Divine help), that the brave man draws the strength which, in many cases, actually enables him to do the unexpected, to overcome unfavorable odds, etc. It was this basic trait that was lacking in the generation of the Spies. They imagined themselves standing against a powerful, armed enemy, and could only think “We are weak and they are strong.”
God, and Moses, understood that there was nothing to be done with this weak, fearful people. Dramatic punishment of a selected group of leaders would not shock them into change; the fault was inherent in the depths of their personalities, in their training and life-experiences from their earliest years. The only solution was to wait—forty long years—until the old generation would simply die out and a new generation would come of age and take their place. These people would be toughened by the totally different experience of life in the harsh, lean environment of the desert—without taskmasters, but also without the illusory comforts of Egyptian urban civilization.
This story has become a major archetype in modern Jewish mythology. Ben-Gurion constantly referred to the transitional generation on the way to independence, those born in the Galut and burdened with the “ghetto mentality,” as Dor ha-Midbar, the “Generation of the Desert”; they would simply have to pass from the world before a proud, independent, self-reliant state and society would be able to emerge. It is a truism that this myth bears no small responsibility and/or blame both for the exaggeratedly macho and insensitive aspects of the Israeli national character, as well as for its strengths and virtues.
At this point in history, things may have come full circle. From the dangers of cowardice of a people just liberated from slavery (or the ghetto), to brave, hard, macho fighters, we’ve become a comfortable, middle-class consumer society, with the softness of those who have perhaps been too much spoiled. (NB: I am not advocating here the Revisionist, “iron and blood” approach so popular in certain religious circles, but merely describing what I see around me.) Ironically, perhaps, the American Jew and the Israeli Jew are closer today in mentality than they have been at any time in the past fifty years.
On Men, Women and Mitzvot: A Bat Mitzvah Homily
I would like to present here a sermon based on this week’s portion which I have used at various “life-cycle events.” Like other parshiyot in the middle of Bamidbar, this week’s portion also begins with a major incident, followed by a series of miscellaneous laws, not necessarily connected either with one another or with the initial subject of the parshah. Indeed, one of the major difficulties in understanding the Book of Numbers is trying to make some sense of the order and location of all these disparate elements—a task I will not attempt here. Among those in Shelah Lekha, we find two mitzvot that are associated, respectively, with women and with men. Hallah, the separation of a portion of the dough each time one bakes bread (Num 15:17-21), and given to God through the priest or the Temple, is one of the three mitzvot mentioned in the Mishnah (Shabbat 2.6) as characteristic of women, for whose neglect they die in childbirth. (Albeit a man who bakes bread is no less obligated to separate hallah, this is conceived as a woman’s mitzvah, because traditionally women were those who baked, at least on the household levels; the Mishnah does mention professional bakers, presumably male, known as nahtomim, and priests who baked the shewbread for the Temple). On the other hand, tzitzit, the fringes worn on the corners of a four-cornered garments (15:37-41), is a mitzvah which traditionally has been performed only by men; the wearing by women of the tallit with tzitzit has become one of the central symbols of contemporary Jewish religious feminism, as well as a cause celebrè in the surrounding controversy. Is there a difference between the meaning of these mitzvot? Tzitzit, as we shall discuss presently, is seen as a constant reminder of God’s Torah, intended to prevent one from going astray “after ones heart and after ones eyes.” It is conceived as an active instrument in the inner struggle between a person’s intention and wish to serve God and his Yetzer Hara, the evil inclinations drawing him the other way—indeed, as far as I know, it is the only commandment whose entire declared purpose is to remind one not to sin. Hallah, by contrast, belongs to the large family of mitzvot whose purpose is to express gratitude toward God and acknowledgement of His bounty, by symbolically offering a small portion of the “first” of each thing to God. Other such mitzvot include: the sanctity of the firstborn of man and beast (bekhor); the offering of the first sheaf of new spring grain (omer); the bringing of the first ripening fruits of each year (bikkurim); the dedication to the Temple of the first yield of a new fruit tree, during its fourth year (neta reva’i); the first shearing of the sheep (reshit ha-gez); etc.
The uniqueness of hallah is that, unlike the seasonal, annual, or even once in a lifetime events represented by these other mitzvot, it is concerned with a homely, workaday activity—kneading and baking bread, the staple of the everyday diet.
At the risk of being considered “politically incorrect,” it seems clear to me that the Torah considers men and women to have fundamentally different emotional and spiritual makeup. The man tends to be more aggressive, more prone to the type of ego assertion discussed last week, more involved in inner struggles to overcome his chaotic, instinctual inclinations. Woman, by contrast, is seen as more whole, more self-contained; her characteristic sin is less likely to be that of hubris, of arrogant pride or presumption, and to lie more in the direction of passivity, of allowing herself to be “seduced” (not only sexually!) to follow the will of others. Her religious path is thus calmer and more tranquil, her characteristic mitzvah being simply that of expressing gratitude to God, and awareness of His presence in the humble activities of everyday life.
“Go not astray after your hearts and after your eyes…”
A well-known Talmudic dictum describes the meanings implicit in the mitzvah of tzitzit as follows:
Rav Yehudah bar Haviva said: [It is recited daily] because it contains five things: the commandment of tzitzit; the Exodus from Egypt; the yoke of the commandments; the [rejection of] views of the heretics; thoughts of sin; and thoughts of idolatry… From whence do we infer these? As is said, ’after your hearts’ [Num 15:39]—this refers to heresy (minut)… ‘after your eyes’ [ibid.]—this refers to thoughts of [sexual] sin… ‘after which you go a whoring’ [ibid.]—this refers to thoughts of idolatry…” (Berakhot 12b)
The Talmud thus sees tzitzit as a kind of spiritual and psychological prophylactic, so-to-speak, against two almost diametrically opposed levels of sinfulness: the sins of heresy and idolatry, rooted in the intellectual faculty (“the heart”), and sexual passion and sin, rooted in “the eyes”—a possibly momentary impulse and arousal prompted by the sight of an attractive woman (the proof-text brought by the Talmud refers to Samson, notorious for his weakness for women, who wanted a certain non-Israelite girl, justifying his choice to his parents with the words that she was “right in my eyes”–Judges 14:3).
Maimonides elaborates on the theoretical underpinnings of this Rabbinic dictum. By citing it specifically in that section of his monumental code concerned with “Laws of Idolatrous Worship,” he takes it far beyond the narrow realm of the mitzvah of tzitzit to the broad canvass of fundamental religious principles. For him, the quintessential point about the ban on idolatry is the teaching of correct doctrine about God. The human imagination is capable of constructing all kinds of misguided notions about God, thereby opening the way to grave theological error. Hence Maimonides’ emphasis on negative theology: God is best defined through what He is not. He states there that:
Not only are we enjoined against turning our thoughts toward idolatry, but we must not raise in our hearts nor turn our thoughts towards any thought that might cause a person to uproot one of the principles of the Torah, lest we be drawn after the thoughts of our heart. For a person’s mind is limited (da’ato ketzarah), and not all minds are able to fully attain the truth. And if each person were to follow the thoughts of his heart, it would destroy the world… For at times he may go astray after idolatry, and at others he may question the unity of the Creator… or at times he will question prophecy… or whether or not the Torah is from Heaven. For he does not know the logical rules (middot) by which he ought to conduct his inquiry so that he may know the truth, and he will go astray after heresy. And concerning this matter the Torah warned us, “Go not astray after your heart or after your eyes, after which you go a whoring.” That is, each of you should not follow his own limited mind, thinking thereby to attain the truth. And concerning this our sages said: ‘after your hearts—this is heresy; “after your eyes”—that is licentiousness.’…. (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 2.3)
This passage from the Rambam, with its intellectual elitism, its profound distrust of autonomous human thinking, and its frank rejection of free-roving philosophical speculation for all but the most learned and highly trained, is diametrically opposed to the most basic premises of the modern democratic mentality. I had originally promised (in Yitro) to discuss this issue more fully here, in Shelah Lekha. Due to the unexpected delay in preparing this number, and in light of the fact that the closely related issue of authority vs. autonomy constitutes a central axis of the next Torah reading, Korah, I shall postpone the conclusion of the promised discussion ‘till the next issue of Hitzei Yehonatan.
I will conclude with one brief insight: the typology presented here of the two dangers confronting the average person in his striving to do the good—the “heart” and the “eyes,” read as instinctual passions and “thoughts of heresy”—seems to refer to two diametrically opposed arenas. Yet in fact, by their inclusion together, the Sages, and the Rambam, seem to be saying that these two areas are not so far apart as seems at first blush. Both blind instinctual drives, and intellectual reflection and cogitation over the mysteries of life and the universe, are ultimately rooted in the individual self; as such, they are bereft of any necessary connection either to objective reality or to religious tradition, seen as the distillation of prophecy and of far greater and purer minds, who were ultimately closer to knowledge of the One. But on that, too, more next week.