Drash on Parashat Shlach-lekha 2021

Drash on Parashat Shlach-lekha      
Rabbi Fred Morgan
Emeritus Rabbi, Temple Beth Israel
St Kilda, Victoria

The other day Kathy Kaplan OAM, founder of IMPACT For Women and former president of TBI, pointed out that, due to the curvature of the earth, the farthest a person can see out to the horizon without ascending a height is five kilometres.  Her point was that our perspective is always limited. Until we shift from our position, none of us can know what lies beyond the five-kilometre limit.  There are more things hidden from us than are known to us. 

Kathy was referring specifically during Domestic Violence Awareness Month to the still-too-often hidden issue of abuse within the family.  But the image of the five kilometre limit resonates widely.  It also applies to our understanding of truth.  It is commonly said nowadays that we know for certain only what we can immediately experience – our “five kilometres;” we know everything else only through the authority of others, from books or blogs that we read on social media, from expert testimony on the television.  There is no consistency in these sources of knowledge. For the past several weeks I’ve been following a debate on the letters page of the Australian Jewish News about the truth of climate change.  Both sides argue on the basis of scientific testimony that is beyond most of us to grasp.  They both cite expert witnesses.  Oy vey!  How to decide who is telling the truth, and who, for all their passionate intensity, is deluded.

The fact is that even the truth of our immediate experience is not always certain.  Two people view the same event in Washington DC.  One says they see a peaceful crowd of tourists visiting the Capitol Building, the other says they see a violent mob trying to overthrow the government.  (I deliberately use a provocative example here.  There are many others I might have chosen.)  It is all a matter of perspective and also the language used to communicate the experience.  Social-psychological experiments with witnesses have shown how difficult it is to arrive at a true reckoning of events. It seems our senses are not the most trustworthy sources of knowledge, after all.

The use of the senses in identifying what is true or real is at the heart of this week’s Torah portion, Shlach-lekha.  The key word in the portion is the verb la-tur, meaning to scout out or to observe with intent.  We sometimes speak of the 12 spies whom Moses sends into the land to check it out, but the use of the term “spies” is anachronistic in this story.  It is used in the accompanying Haftarah, which tells of the spies (meraglim) sent by Joshua to spy on Jericho as a preparation for military action.   It is thanks to the commentator Rashi that we refer in our Torah portion to the 12 spies, since Rashi glosses “scouting” with “spying”.  But these men are not spies.  They are sent to observe the land, its people and its wealth, and to report back not only to their commander in chief but to the entire congregation of Israel.  The intention is that they confirm the truth about the land that God has already articulated: that it is “a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

The scouts do indeed confirm God’s declaration of truth about the land.  Then something goes awry.  With a single Hebrew word, efes, translated as “yet, however, but…,” literally meaning “zero, nothing, void” and hence voiding all that came before or reducing it to nothing, the scouts (excepting Joshua and Caleb, who demur from the majority claims) replace the truth of “a good land” with the another truth drawn from the deep recesses of their psyches .  This land, they say is inhospitable and frightening, it is filled with giants (anakim, later expanded to nephilim, mythical supermen) and there is no place for us here at all.  Despite the fact that Joshua and Caleb demur, the majority view prevails.  As a result, the people are condemned by their own fears as much as by God to wander in the wilderness for forty years until that generation has died off and a new generation freed from the mental shackles of slavery has arisen.  

The irony in the story is that what the scouts describe is real; the land is indeed filled with fortified settlements and resident tribes who are unlikely to welcome newcomers. The problem is not that the scouts reject the evidence of their senses; on the contrary, the problem is that they thought they were relying onlyon the evidence of their senses, believing that the evidence tells them everything they need to know to arrive at the truth.  More is needed, however, a framework for interpreting the sensory data in a truthful or trustworthy way.  

Frameworks for interpretation are essential; we all have them and apply them all the time.  The scouts did as well, but they used a framework that was untrustworthy because it came from their deepest fears and hence was unacknowledged by them.   Maybe they thought they were being good witnesses, accurate scouts.   They were perhaps disingenuously unaware that their descriptions would have consequences. As the great 19th Century Chasidic Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk put it, that a person doesn’t lie is not sufficient to make him a teller of truth.  The truth is not according to our perceptions, rather, it emerges from the depths of our heart.   In other words, truth (emet) to be true must emerge from a framework of faith (emunah), not fear.

For Menachem Mendel, faith is about trusting absolutely in God.  He felt that the scouts lacked sufficient trust in God.  They placed the evidence of their senses over what God had promised them.  What is our framework of faith in the 21st Century?  For me, it is the value concepts that I find in Torah: for example, seeing others as created in the image of God; “justice, justice shall you pursue;” actively show respect to the stranger “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt;” pursuing peace; preserving the earth for future generations; caring for the needy, the poor and the distressed.  These values provide us with the framework through which to filter our perceptions of the world.  If our perspectives on the evidence don’t align with these values, if they lead us to angry or fearful or self-interested positions, then perhaps we need to look deeper into the depths of our hearts. 

Let’s endeavour as much as possible, relying on Torah’s framework of faith, to use our allotted five kilometres of sight to lead us on paths of truth.

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