Friday, June 11, 2010

Shelah Lekha (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog, at 2006_05_20_archive.html/, as well as June 2007, 2008, and 2009.

Kaleb and the Spies

The affair of the spies sent by Moses and the bad report they brought of the Land and the dangers and uncertainties involved in conquering it is at the center of this week’s parashah. Thus, the Talmud devotes well over two folio pages to aggadah concerning the incident, the motivations of the people, and even the significance of their names. I will quote here only one small section, from Sotah 34b:

“And they went up through the Negev and [he] came to Hebron (Num 13:22). It should have read, “and they came” [i.e., in the plural rather than the singular form]. Rabba said: This teaches that Kaleb separated himself from the counsel of the Spies and went off and prostrated himself on the graves of the patriarchs. He said to them: Fathers, seek mercy on my behalf, that I may be saved from the counsel of the spies. {Regarding] Joshua, Moses had already asked mercy on his behalf, as is said “And Moses called Hosea son of Nun Yehoshu’a” (ibid., v. 16)— [meaning] “God save you” (Yah yoshi’akha) from the counsel of the spies. And concerning this it is written: “But by servant Kaleb, because he had a different spirit with him [he was brought into the land…]” {Num 14:24).

There is something singularly touching about this midrash. The Torah relates that, of the twelve spies who were sent—one from each tribe—ten brought back a discouraging, defeatist report; Joshua and Kaleb alone told the people that it would be possible to come into the land. Joshua, who was already then Moses’ second-in-command, was to become his successor; together with him, Kaleb was the only one, not only among the spies, but of the entire generation of those who were adults at the time of the Exodus, who were allowed to to survive the forty years of wandering and enter into the Land.

Our aggadah picks up on a small turn of language—the use of the word vayavo, “and he came,” rather than vayavo’u, “and they came”—to infer that the part of the mission involving Hebron involved only one person: Kaleb. Our aggadah shows Kaleb aware of the danger of being caught up with the other spies in denouncing Moses and the whole project of attempting to conquer and settle the land of Canaan/Israel, notwithstanding the divine promises. In order to overcome this, he decides to visit Hebron, the site of the graves of the patriarchs, and to ask their intercession on his behalf to resist this temptation.

There are two interesting and problematic points here. First, the idea of seeking assistance from the souls of the dead is strange, and seems to go against the prohibition against necromancy. Why cannot a person pray to God directly?! And yet, we know that, then as now, the graves of the righteous are considered places where prayer is somehow more efficacious; indeed, pilgrimages to the burial places of tzadikkim, whether in Israel, in North Africa, or in Eastern Europe, attract thousands and even tens of thousands of the faithful. The official explanation offered to justify this practice is that one is not praying to the dead, but asking their good offices as intercessors in Heaven, by virtue of their righteous deeds, on behalf of the petitioner. On the other hand, there are those more rationalist teachers who frown on the practice (e.g., Rav Soloveitchik writes against this in Halakhic Man). Nevertheless, even the most rationalist rabbis visit the graves of their own immediate family on yahrzeits and such occasions. In any event, this aggadah suggests that such a practice was already known in antiquity.

The second point about this story which I find quote touching is that Kaleb is portrayed here as asking divine help in resisting the counsel of the spies. Generally speaking, prayer involves request for Divine help against some external obstacle or threat: illness; famine, drought, and the concomitant threat of poverty; war; personal enemies who attack one and besmirch one’s name, etc. All these are repeated motifs in the prayer-psalms that dominate the first three-fifths of the Book of Psalms.

Here, Kaleb asks something else: that God help him to overcome his own impulse or temptation to join in the destructive plan of the meraglim. Clearly, our midrash is keenly aware of the dangers of social pressure: that the average person tends to conform to the opinion of those surrounding him; that it is far easier to agree with the consensus rather than to articulate an honest but unpopular view and to make one’s own truthful voice heard in face of the likelihood or even certainty of criticism. Kaleb, unlike Joshua, was not made of the stuff of a real leader, but he knew the truth, and he knew that he was confronting a test in which his own powers of stubborn resistance would be tested—and he did not want to be found wanting. On second thought, perhaps his journey to the Cave of Makhpelah in Hevron had an additional significance: he knew that the patriarchs, each in his own way, were stubborn men, who resisted the easy path and stood up against others when that was demanded (Avraham ha-Ivri—“he was on one side and the entire world on the other side”). Perhaps Kaleb sought inspiration from them for the test he would confront by visiting the site of their earthly remains, and thereby somehow coming as close as possible to their presence.


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