Lance Strate's D'Var Torah for June 24, 2022
This week’s Torah portion is known as Shelach Lecha, or simply as Shelach. It is from the fourth book of the Torah, which in Jewish tradition is called Bamidbar, meaning, in the desert. The Christians gave it a different name, in the Greek Arithmoi, which is the root of the English word arithmetic, hence in English it get the name, the Book of Numbers. It was given that name because it contains a census of the Israelite population, actually two of them. But Shelach Lecha is very much about being in the desert, and staying in the desert instead of immediately entering the land of Canaan.
This parsha includes the story of the spies sent by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan, in preparation for their return to the promised land. God tells Moses to send one leader from each of the twelve tribes, which he does, and they go and scout out the land, and after forty days return to report back what they have seen. The entire Israelite community is gathered to hear what they have to say, and they begin by saying that it is indeed a land of milk and honey. But they also reported that, “the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified, and there we saw even the offspring of the giant.”
There was a dissenting opinion expressed by two of the spies, however, Joshua, who would eventually succeed Moses as the leader of the Israelites, and Caleb. But the rest persisted, saying, “We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.” And they said, “The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature. There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.” In case you were wondering, Anak is mentioned in the book of Genesis, and in addition to the Anakim, there are other races of giants mentioned in the Torah as well. Whether this refers to the kind of giant we hear about in stories like Jack and the Beanstalk, or the kind we see playing in the NBA is not specified.
Hearing this report, the Israelites became fearful, and complained, blaming Moses and Aaron for misleading them. And they started to talk about returning to Egypt because it would be better to live as a slave than to meet certain death fighting a losing battle. Moses and Aaron are grief stricken by this reaction, as are Joshua and Caleb, and the two of them respond by saying, “The land we passed through to scout is an exceedingly good land. If Adonai desires it, Adonai will bring us to this land and give it to us, a land flowing with milk and honey. You ought not to rebel against Adonai, nor should you fear the people of that land… Adonai is with us. Do not fear them.”
But the Israelites were not convinced, until finally God’s glory appeared to them, we can understand this to mean a blinding light, and God’s voice is heard speaking to Moses. It seems that Adonai is fed up with all of the complaining, and want to wipe out the Israelites entirely, and start over with the descendants of Moses, saying to Moses, “I will make you into a nation, greater and stronger than they.”
Moses the lawgiver now acts as a defense attorney, arguing that if God annihilated the Israelites, it would be seen as a failure on God’s part to deliver on his promise, to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and to the Holy Land. The Egyptians and other nations of the world would think that God lacked the power to bring his chosen people safely back home. In other words, that it would be a shanda for the goyim.
And Moses says, “Adonai is slow to anger and abundantly kind, forgiving iniquity and transgression,” and he goes on to say, “please forgive the iniquity of this nation in accordance with your abounding kindness, as You have borne this people from Egypt until now.” And the next lines of the text are ones that are familiar from our High Holy Day liturgy: V’omer Adonai, Salachti Kidvarecha. “And Adonai said, I have forgiven them in accordance with your word.”
But there is a price to pay, a lesser punishment that God decrees, that the adults of this generation shall not enter the Promised Land, that they shall live out their lives and die in the desert. That is why the Israelites spend forty years wandering in the desert, it was due to God’s decree. The only exceptions are the spies. The ten faithless spies die from a plague, while Joshua and Caleb are the only ones from their generation who will be allowed to cross the Jordan and come into the Holy Land.
Moses informs the Israelites of God’s verdict, but they are still unable to learn their lesson. Instead, they decide to follow the original plan and enter the land of Canaan. Moses warns them that God will not be with them now, but once again they do not listen to him. Consequently, they were utterly defeated by the Amalekites and the Canaanites, and forced to retreat back to the desert, where they’ll spend the next forty years, one year for each of the forty days that the spies were scouting the land of Canaan.
The story is an ancient one, and it is difficult for us to relate to many of the particulars, living as we do in relative safety, stability, and comfort. Compared to the precarious situation that our ancestors often found themselves in, we are indeed privileged to live in this time and this place, however much there still is conflict and injustice. But the story is still very much a human story, and human concerns and challenges have not changed in their essential character.
We have made enormous progress over the centuries, over the millennia. We have metaphorically travelled a great distance since the days of Moses. A far, far greater distance than they travelled going from Egypt to Canaan, or wandering the desert for forty years. And yet, however far and however long we travel, there is no getting away from ourselves. However lightly we pack our bags, however much we leave behind, the baggage we bring with us always includes our all too human foibles, faults, and failings. That is what the Torah relates, over and over again. The story of human weakness, and the struggle to overcome it, to be true to our higher nature, to answer a higher calling.
In this story, we have a situation that is all too familiar. The twelve spies all do their scouting together, all observing the same places and peoples. When they report back, they all agree on that what they found was a land flowing with milk and honey. They differ only in their assessment of the opposition the Israelites will face when they return to their ancestral home. We might suspect, then, that Joshua and Caleb gave an honest account, while the other ten scouts were dishonest in their report.
We know that honesty is an important value in Jewish tradition. The ninth commandment says, “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” The holiness code in Leviticus says, “You must not be dishonest in judgement, in measurements of length, weight, or quantity. You are to have honest balances, honest weights, honest bushels and honest gallons.” These are not commandments that absolutely prohibit lying. They do not require us to refrain from the white lies we tell when we want to spare someone’s feelings, or as part of routine social exchanges.
Nor are we asked to refrain from moral lies, for example when someone is looking for someone else with the intent to harm or kill that other person, and asks you if you know where that person is hiding. If you do happen to know, a moral lie would be to refrain from telling the truth, and instead respond that you do not know where that person is.
There is also a gray area that the ancient Greek philosopher Plato called noble lies, which are lies told to maintain social harmony and cohesiveness, and for promoting good causes. The 20th century philosopher Leo Strauss believed that noble lies are necessary in politics and in religion, that we need to cling to our myths to inspire us, and to give our lives purpose and meaning.
While we generally expect our leaders to be honest with us, I believe we mostly accept that some amount of deception is typical in politics, and perhaps even necessary. The ancient Greeks also gave us the word rhetoric to refer to the ways in which people try to persuade one another, especially in political discourse and in legal proceedings.
Even the word propaganda, which we equate with the promulgation of falsehoods, originally had a different connotation. It was coined by Pope Gregory XV in 1622 to refer to missionary activity, so that propaganda referred to the propagation of the faith. From the point of view of the Church of Rome, this sort of propaganda was a good thing. From the point of view of the Protestant reformers, not so much, but then again they were quite prolific at creating and distributing their own propaganda, making use of the relatively recent invention of the printing press with moveable type. Of course, we were not particularly fond of either one of these propaganda efforts, and given our own reluctance to engage in proselytizing, Jewish propaganda was mainly aimed at maintaining the faith in the face of an often hostile environment.
Given the word’s relatively neutral origins, during the 20th century many governments were not reluctant to set up departments that were officially named the ministry of propaganda. This includes Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, fascist Spain and Italy, North Korea, as well as the Irish Republic early in the century, Brazil during the 30s and 40s, and Poland at the end of the Second World War.
Here in the United States, propaganda took on the highly negative connotation that we all know, so when we talk about the American Revolution, we talk about pamphlets, that Thomas Paine was a pamphleteer, rather than a propagandist. And in our government’s modern efforts, for example Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Radio Televisión Martí, we use the word information instead. Information sounds so much better to us than propaganda. In other contexts, we also use the word publicity, which is not quite as neutral as information, but still summons up images of celebrities handing out photographs of themselves and signing autographs, or the contemporary equivalent, posing for selfies with fans. In politics, for the past few decades we have used the word spin, and spin doctors. And then there is advertising, which after all is propaganda for the purposes of commerce.
Our government is involved in propaganda directed at other populations, and we ourselves are surrounded by propaganda in forms that include advertising, public relations, and political persuasion. How much of this might be considered noble lies is an open question. But I want to stress that I am not saying that there is an equivalency between liberal democracies such as our own, and nations cursed with authoritarian or totalitarian governments. One longstanding measure of freedom is the extent to which governments engage in censorship, in limiting open communication, open exchange of opinions and arguments, the free marketplace of ideas, and information.
Authoritarian governments maintain their power in part by placing strict limits on communication, and in controlling the messages and channels of communication. Maintaining control allows them to communicate whatever they want, because there are no openings for dissent, for pointing out errors and falsehoods, for whistleblowing and identifying deceptive practices. It allows them to lie, blatantly, constantly, and effectively. It comes as no surprise that the phrase big lie was coined by Adolph Hitler, appearing in his 1925 book Mein Kampf, and described as a lie so immense that no one could possibly believe that anyone could “have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”
According to historian Zachary Jacobson,
Adolf Hitler first defined the Big Lie as a deviant tool wielded by Viennese Jews to discredit the Germans' deportment in World War I. Yet, in tragically ironic fashion, it was Hitler and his Nazi regime that actually employed the mendacious strategy.
Tragic to be sure, ironic perhaps, but I believe that that famous Viennese Jew Sigmund Freud would have recognized it as a form of psychological projection, attributing to others what you yourself are guilty of. This is exactly the basis of scapegoating, the traditional practice of projecting your sins onto someone or something else; the scapegoat is then sacrificed in an act of ritual purification, purifying not the one that is sacrificed, but the ones that perform the sacrifice.
It is therefore more than a little concerning that we see the big lie technique, and projection and scapegoating, being used so freely by our former president and so many members of his political party, as well as the so-called news networks that support them. These are not moral lies, these are not noble lies, these are not white lies, and the extent to which false statements and claims are being used for political gain goes far beyond what is acceptable in political discourse. The danger goes far beyond the fact that many people will believe the lies they are told. The philosopher Hannah Arendt explains the insidious effects of this authoritarian tactic:
If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.
What Arendt helps us to recognize is that there is a clear and present danger to our democracy, and it is incumbent on all citizens of good faith to respond to it.
Faith is at the heart of the story of the spies. The Torah does not indicate that those ten spies were liars and that only Joshua and Caleb told the truth. In fact, it gives us good reason to believe that the cities in Canaan were strong and well defended, and even that there were giants living there. They did nothing wrong in providing an accurate description of what they had seen. The problem was that they failed to separate fact from opinion, reporting from editorializing, observation from emotion. Good decision making depends on having access to good information.
As fallible human beings, we may not be capable of being absolutely objective, but we can strive for objectivity as an ideal, we can strive to keep our personal biases out of our descriptions and decision-making, we can strive for dispassionate evaluation, and indeed expect and require as much when it comes to the courtroom, and to public policy. The spies did the opposite. They allowed their emotions to overwhelm their rationality, they could not separate their subjective responses from their obligation to provide a fair and accurate report, and in doing so created panic among the Israelites.
Moses was right to defend the Israelites in the face of God’s wrath, because whether knowingly or not, they were the victims of the ancient equivalent of propaganda. Propaganda does not have to consist entirely of lies, or even of a mix of truth and falsehood. Perhaps even more important than the facts are the ways in which they are interpreted, the frame that we place them in. The ten spies framed their report with fear and despair. What Moses was looking for, and what Joshua and Caleb provided, was a frame that would serve to propagate the faith, a reminder that with God’s help the Israelites can succeed against all odds in their bid to return home.
The ten spies were guilty of a loss of nerve and a loss of faith, and this became as infectious among the Israelites as any plague. Admittedly, it may be that what Moses, Joshua, and Caleb intended was to tell the Israelites noble lies, to keep up their morale and cohesion in the face of an intimidating challenge. We might also note that Moses convinced God not to wipe out the Israelites because it would be bad for God’s image. In effect, Moses was took on the role of God’s publicity agent. The modern founder of the public relations industry was Edward Bernays, who was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. But Moses beat him to it by about 3,000 years.
The Israelites were faced with a common human dilemma, as there seemed to be much to be gained and much to lose. In other words, much to risk. The psychologist Abraham Maslow explained that it is a choice between growth and safety. To grow requires change, and change involves risk; to avoid risk and stay safe means staying the same, resisting change. We face this conflict over and over in our lives. Growth or safety. Risk is the fulcrum, growth requires courage, while safety alleviates fear.
There is an age-old understanding, dating back to ancient Greece and the philosopher Aristotle, that courage is the chief among the virtues. More recently, the poet Maya Angelou put it this way:
Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.
The ten spies not only lacked courage themselves, but they in effect robbed the Israelites of the virtue of courage collectively. And the failure of the Israelites was a failure to put their faith in the God who had already freed them from slavery in Egypt, the failure to recall, in the words of the prophet Zechariah that, “not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says Adonai Tzevaot.”
Why was it so hard for the Israelites to have faith, and to find the courage that faith can bring? After all, they were the generation that experienced the exodus from Egypt, that witnessed the revelation at Sinai. The answer seems readily apparent: Because they were slaves. They were born into bondage. They grew up as slaves. They labored as adults for their Egyptian masters. The trauma of their lives, and of the generations that came before them, was too strong, too deep, for them to entirely dispel after only a short period of freedom.
The forty years of wandering may have been framed as a punishment, but in many ways it was a requirement that the generation that grew up as slaves needed to be replaced by a new generation that truly understands what it means to be free. Make no mistake about it, the trauma was transmitted to the next generation, and down through the generations all the way to the present day. That burden was lightened just enough for the next generation to have the courage to do what their parents could not. That is the way it always should be, that each generation moves us forward, that we bring into world individuals who will be better than ourselves. Who may even look back at us with pity, even disgust, but hopefully also with the understanding that we did the best we could do, given the times we were born into, to make things better than they were before.
This past Sunday I was in Manhattan, and I happened to chance upon a Broadway celebration of Juneteenth in Time Square. There were musical performances and speeches, and one of the speakers was saying that they should celebrate freedom for more than one day. He noted that the Jewish people spend a week celebrating our freedom from slavery, and suggested that African-Americans should follow our example and hold Juneteenth seders. I found that incredibly moving. It brought to mind the words of Isaiah, that we are to be a light unto the nations. We set an example, not only by our achievements and triumphs, but by remembering our history, our humble beginnings, our weaknesses, our failures and defeats, and the fact that our freedom is a gift that we must cherish and protect, and continually renew.
To grow, we need to have courage, and we need to have faith. It may be faith in God. It may be faith in ourselves and it may be faith in others, in our companions, in our community, in humanity. It may be faith in something greater than ourselves. It may be faith in the past. It must be faith in the future.