Fear of Freedom?

The episode of the ten spies was one of the most tragic in the entire Torah. In this week’s Parsha, an entire generation was deprived of the chance to enter the Promised Land. The entry itself was delayed by forty years.

In Numbers 13:28, Moses told the spies to go and see the land and bring back a report about it: Are the people many or few, strong or weak? What is the land itself like? Are the cities open or fortified? Is the soil fertile? They were also tasked with bringing back some of its fruit. The spies returned with a positive report about the land itself: “It is indeed flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit” but this was  followed by one of the most famous ‘buts’ in Jewish history: “But – the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak [‘the giant’] there”.

Sensing that their words were demoralizing the people, Caleb, one of the spies, interrupted with a message of reassurance: “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” However, the other spies insisted: “We cannot attack those people; they are stronger than we are.… All the people we saw there are of great size.… We seemed like grasshoppers…”. The next day, the people, persuaded that the challenge was completely beyond them, expressed regret that they had ever embarked on the Exodus and said, “Let us appoint a leader and go back to Egypt”.

Maybe we should ask the obvious question. How could ten of the spies come back with a defeatist report? They had seen with their own eyes how God had sent a series of plagues that brought Egypt, the strongest and longest-lived of all the empires of the ancient world, to its knees. They had seen the Egyptian army with its cutting-edge military technology, the horse-drawn chariot, drown in the sea while the Israelites passed through it on dry land. Egypt was far stronger than the Canaanites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and other minor kingdoms that they would have to confront in conquering the land. Nor was this an ancient memory. It had happened not much more than a year before.

What is more interesting, they were entirely wrong about the people of the land. We discover this from the book of Joshua, in the passage read in the haftarah. When Joshua sent spies to Jericho, the woman who sheltered them, Rahab, described for them what her people felt when they heard that the Israelites were on their way:

I know that the Lord has given this land to you. A great fear of you has fallen on us…We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt.… When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. (Josh. 2:9–11)

The people of Jericho were not giants. They were as fearful of the Israelites as the Israelites were of them.

What is more, the spies were not only normal people plucked at random. The Torah states that they were “men who were heads of the People of Israel.” They were leaders. They were not fearful people.

The questions are straight-forward but let me throw you a curve. Have you ever stopped to think that the spies were not afraid of failure?  Could it be they were afraid of success?

Never had a people lived so close to God. If they entered the land, their lifestyle of camping around the Sanctuary, eating manna from heaven, living in continuous contact with the Shechinah would vanish. They would have to fight battles, maintain an army, create an economy, farm the land, worry about the weather and their crops, and all the other thousand distractions that come from living in the world. What would happen to their closeness to God? They would be preoccupied with mundane and material pursuits. Here they could spend their entire lives learning Torah, lit by the radiance of G-d. There they would be one more nation in a world of nations with the same kind of economic, social, and political problems that every other nation must deal with.

Were they afraid of success, and the subsequent change it would bring about? They wanted to spend their lives in the closest possible proximity to G-d. What they did not understand was that G-d seeks. One of the great differences between Judaism and other religions is that while others seek to lift people to heaven, Judaism seeks to bring heaven down to earth.

Much of Torah is about things not conventionally seen as religious at all: labor relations, agriculture, welfare provisions, loans and debts, land ownership, and so on. It is not difficult to have an intense religious experience in the desert, or in a retreat. Most religions have holy places and holy people who live far removed from the stresses and strains of everyday life.

But that is not the Jewish project, the Jewish mission. God wanted the Israelites to create a model society where human beings were not treated as slaves, where rulers were not worshipped as “gods”, where human dignity was respected, where law was impartially given to rich and poor alike, where no one was destitute, no one was abandoned to isolation, no one was above the law, and no realm of life was a morality-free zone. This requires a society, and if you are going to be a society, you need a land. It requires an economy, an army, fields and flocks, labor, and enterprise. All these, in Judaism, become ways of bringing the Shechinah into the shared spaces of our collective life.

The spies did not doubt that Israel could win its battles with the inhabitants of the land. Their concern was not physical but spiritual. Maybe they did not want to leave the wilderness. Maybe they did not want to become just another nation among the nations of the earth. Maybe they did not want to lose their unique relationship with God in the silence of the desert, far removed from civilization and its discontents.

As you know this is not the plain sense of the narrative, but we should not dismiss it on that account.  Could it be that this may have been what the ten spies were thinking? Could the spies possibly have feared freedom and its responsibilities?

Torah is about the responsibilities of freedom. Judaism is not a religion of hiding from the world. It is a religion of engagement with the world. God chose Israel to make His presence visible in the world. Therefore, Israel must live in the world.

Maimonides speaks of people who live as hermits in the desert to escape the corruptions of society. But these were the exceptions, not the rule. It is not the destiny of Israel to live outside time and space as the world’s recluses.

Maybe they didn’t want to contaminate Judaism by bringing it into contact with the real world. Maybe they sought the eternal dependency of God’s protection and the endless embrace of His all-encompassing love. There is something noble about this desire, but also something irresponsible. The spies disheartened the people and provoked the anger of God.

So what is the mission and Project of the Jewish People?

It is the Torah as the constitution of the Jewish nation under the sovereignty of God – it is about building a society in the land of Israel that so honors human dignity and freedom and that it will one day lead the world to say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deut. 4:6).

The Jewish task is not to fear the real world, but to enter and transform it, healing some of its wounds and bringing Divine light to places often shrouded in darkness.

Shabbat Shalom!