Cut the Crap!

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG

In this week’s Parshah, Shelach, we once again visit the historic faux pas of the twelve spies that Moses sent to survey the Land of Canaan in advance of the Israelites’ approach. Rather than returning with the objective report that Moses requested, however, the spies had a different agenda; they returned with their own negative opinions of the Holy Land, the insurmountable obstacles that they believed the Israelites would face, and a generally bleak picture of the land that G-d had promised to His people.

Two of the spies — Caleb and Joshua — did not share the opinion of the other spies, and were aghast at the report that they were delivering. Caleb in particular is singled out as having successfully silenced the spies, and commanding the attention of all of the Israelites, whereupon he encouraged them to continue to have faith in G-d’s ability to deliver the Land of Canaan into their hands. However, after Caleb yielded the floor, the other ten spies continued to spin tales of the evils and dangers that they awaited the Israelites if they continued their current course.

Their corrosive words fell on fertile soil, and the Israelites began to wail at their misfortune at having been brought all the way from Egypt just to perish in the Land of Canaan. Full of new terror of the Promised Land, they begged to die in the desert, rather than to proceed. Then, having recalled Egypt, they resolved to appoint a new leader and to return there.

This apparent perfidy was the final straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, and G-d announced his intention to destroy the entire nation. Moses begged G-d to reconsider, and was only marginally successful. G-d decreed that the entire nation that had experienced exodus would die before entering the Promised Land. They would not die immediately, but rather, they would wander the desert for forty years and die there, and their children would enter the Land of Canaan.

The spies themselves, however, would die immediately — except for two: Caleb and Joshua, neither of whom participated in the other spies’ ill-conceived plot.

When they heard this, the Israelites mourned. They apologized. They acknowledged their error. They insisted that they were indeed ready to enter the Land of Canaan. In fact, so committed to entering the Land were they, that a contingent of Israelites armed themselves and, defying Moses’s counsel, set out for the Land of Canaan. However, without G-d’s blessing and assistance, they were roundly defeated by the Amalekites and Canaanites.

That’s the biblical story.

For the purpose of this week’s column, let us focus on just a few elements, however.

First, how was Caleb successful in silencing an entire nation, and holding them a captive audience?

Second, why, despite such influence, did he fail?

Third, and most perplexing of all: The Israelites clearly didn’t believe that G-d was capable of defeating the powerful nations of Canaan, to the point that they lamented “if only we had died in this desert.” Yet, as soon as Moses communicates G-d’s message – that they would indeed, die in the desert, and would not enter the Land of Canaan of which they were so terrified – they mourn, rend their clothing, and beg to be taken to the Promised Land. What changed? What event, miracle or argument restored their faith?

First things first.

A rebellion was brewing. The Israelites followed Moses into the desert amidst a heightened and continuing sense of urgency. First, they escape Egypt, their prison, their concentration camp. Then they were pursued to the Red Sea, until they watched the Egyptians finally perish beneath the waters. Immediately thereafter, however, they were embattled by the Amalekites, until, under Moses’s leadership, they finally prevailed. They were now in a desert without water or food; however, after beseeching Moses, water was provided in the form a rock, sprung from a well, and food was provided in the form of Manna falling from heaven.

Finally, the urgency dissipates; the Israelites are safe, watered and fed. It is at this point that the unrest sets in; for after all, they are in a desert, without the niceties of civilized life. With no imminent crises facing them, they turn their focus to less life-threatening issues, and decide that they are not content.

Their first frivolous complaint incurs G-d’s wrath. A Divine fire breaks out amongst them, and they run to Moses to intercede on their behalf, as he has done so often before. And he does, and the fire sinks into the earth. The next time they complain, however – waxing nostalgic about the meat, fish and all of the non-desert vegetables that they ate in Egypt – they do not approach Moses at all; neither with the complaint itself, nor for his assistance when a plague subsequently breaks out.

In the meantime, Moses no longer has the monopoly on Divine prophecy, which he now shares with the Seventy Elders; some of whom are now prophesying a negative future about Moses himself, including that he will not be entering the Land of Canaan. [1]

Even Moses’s own siblings appear to have gotten caught up in this development, [2] when Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses – and as they say the exact words that will later be repeated by Korach and his followers in their open rebellion against Moses. [3]

And while G-d’s endorsement of Moses and stinging criticism of Miriam and Aaron may have put them in their place, might it not exacerbated the growing hostility toward Moses? The people saw their beloved Miriam – a woman who (as we discussed last week) had finally had her health and beauty restored to her – stricken with leprosy for daring to speak ill of Moses. When it says that “the nation did not travel until Miriam was reintegrated,” this too suggests rebellion – for we had just been taught that it was the clouds and the trumpets that determined when the nation traveled; in this case, however, it sounds as though the people were unwilling to travel without Miriam – irrespective of any Divine prompting. [4]

Did this political climate influence Moses’s decision to acquiesce to the Israelites’ request to send spies? Under different circumstances, perhaps he might have said “No. G-D promised it would be good, and so it will be.” But under these circumstances, would that have struck the match on the smoldering discontent? And is this why the spies decided to report negatively on the Land of Canaan? Certainly Moses must have sensed something, for he added the letter “yud” to Joshua’s name, such that the first two letters of the name now spelled the name of G-d, and the balance of his name meant “salvation.” The Midrash explains that he did so deliberately, praying “let G-d save you from the plotting of the other spies.” [5]

Enter Caleb – Miriam’s husband. While the spies might once have been wary of Caleb, who was Moses’s brother-in-law, Caleb, who had devoted himself to Miriam when nobody else would, and nursed her to health and beauty, had just witnessed his wife struck by leprosy for speaking ill of Moses. He had been separated from his wife for a week, as she was exiled from the camp. They likely felt that the experience would have turned Caleb into a powerful ally.

Caleb himself did nothing to disabuse them of this notion. He laughed with them, he congregated with them, and he gave every sign that he shared their feelings toward Moses. Joshua, everyone knew, was Moses’s man through and through. He was not trusted or included in their plans. Caleb, on the other hand – he was a stand-up guy. There was no way that he would support the man responsible for his wife’s leprosy and short exile, right?

So when Caleb got up to speak, a hush fell over the entire crowd. Caleb was the spies’ secret weapon, their ace-in-the-hole. And when he began his speech with the words “And do you think this is the only thing that this son of Amram has done to us?” [6] – they knew they were in for something good. They were listening with bated breath.

But then Caleb continued.

“Did he not also split the sea for us? Did he not also give us water in the middle of the desert, supply us with Manna for food, and quail for meat?”

It was a worthwhile gambit, but it ultimately failed. Caleb’s apparent influence, and all of the forty days that he had spent cultivating the spies’ trust, dissipated.


This is answered by answering our final question.

We live in a culture in which we spend a great deal of our time and energy debating subjective “truths.” Every argument has a counterargument. Every belief has a contrary belief. Is sexual identity fluid or static? Should borders be open or closed? Terrorist or freedom fighter? Everything can be debated, negotiated.

But some truths are absolute, not subjective, as hard as we may try to make them seem so.

Take murder, for example. As a pseudo-intellectual, I might say: “Well, killing in self-defense is not murder; and what is self-defense, after all? If I see someone smoking, adding to environmental pollution, which will ultimately endanger countless human life, wouldn’t it be considered self-defense if I killed him? How about if someone is really subhuman – actually more like an animal; then killing him isn’t really murder, is it? This gives us the Nazis.

And what is the appropriate response? Yes, yes, we can always invent arguments – even smart-sounding ones – that black is really white, that up is really down; but cut the crap. Murder is murder. We know what it is, despite all of the creative attempts to blur that basic truth.

Or, for the parents among you, imagine that your child, way past her bedtime, throws a tantrum, and shouts: “I hate you!” Most parents understand that the correct way of dealing with that child is not to explore her apparent feelings of hate, trying to better understand the source of the feelings, and then to reason with her, explaining that she doesn’t really hate her parents. Most parents will simply put her to bed, and voila! The hatred is all gone in the morning.

R’ Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains in Tanya [7] that a Jew’s relationship with G-d is similarly a fundamental and basic truth. As a consequence, we have a natural and ingrained faith in G-d. Sure, that faith can sometimes get covered over to the point that we question whether it is there. Sure, we can engage in robust intellectual debates over the existence of G-d, or the role that He plays in our lives. But none of that changes the basic truth of us and G-d. Circumstances sometimes lead that bond to be concealed; however, the veil is merely that: a veil. It is not a genuine challenge to our relationship. And so the correct approach is not to argue or negotiate with the veil, as though it has any real substance – it is to simply shake it off, a mere cobweb covering our fundamentally-intact faith.

The Israelites did not truly doubt G-d or their relationship with Him. They simply allowed their dissatisfaction and malcontent to morph into something that looked like they had a genuine crisis of faith. But it was merely a cobweb pretending to be a crack. Caleb bravely stood up in support of Moses and G-d’s omnipotence – but his approach was to try to reason with the cobweb. However, cobwebs thrive on debate; after all, anything that can be debated is not a fundamental truth, and can be rejected and scorned. Thus, Caleb’s passionate appeal added fuel to the Israelites’ imagined crisis.

However, G-d’s message to the Israelites was a “cut the crap” message. Neither G-d nor Moses dignified the self-created frenzy by trying to reason with the Israelites – any more than parents try to reason with an overtired child. G-d responded harshly and directly; and suddenly the apparent crisis of faith vanished. The Israelites no longer had any doubts; they were back to being believers, despite the fact that no miracle had been performed in the interim, and no argument had won the debate.

When dealing with the darker side of our characters, it is important to distinguish between real issues, real questions that require answers, and manufactured issues that we create to mask more petty and superficial motives. Those are our cobwebs, and the way to deal with them is different. We don’t debate or reason with them; we reject them firmly, and then we watch as they dissipate before our very eyes.

Works Cited

[1] See Numbers, 11:28, Rashi.

[2] See Numbers, 12:2.

[3] See Numbers, 16:3.

[4] This would also be consistent with the use of the word “ha’am” (“the nation”) – a reference and title that is universally associated with misconduct. See Numbers, 11:1, Rashi.

[5] See Numbers, 13:16, Rashi. Was this a prophetic premonition of something that had yet to occur? At first blush, this appears to be inconsistent with the verse describing the twelve spies as “all [great] men, heads of the Children of Israel,” upon which Rashi comments that, at that stage, they were still “kosher.” Yet perhaps this simply means that they were still righteous in the sense that they had not yet done anything wrong. However, Moses would have been undoubtedly aware of the growing anti-Moses sentiment, and might well have predicted that the mission would turn sour.

[6] See Numbers, 13:30, Rashi.

[7] Book of Tanya, Ch. 29.