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  Shelach 5784   | Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

07/01/2024 10:41:08 AM


Spy vs Spy

We inaugurated a new tradition this Shabbat by having all of the Torah reading this morning read by men named Joshua. Yeshar Koach to all the Joshua’s who participated this morning and Mazal Tov to all of their families. This is a very fitting way to observe Parashat Shelach. Yehoshua and Kalev are the heroes of our parasha as the only spies who resist the evil council of their peers. And, Yehoshua, if not exactly the hero of the Haftarah, reaped the reward of a successful mission to Yericho that paved the way for the conquest of Eretz Yisrael. 

Both Parashat Shelach and its Haftarah are spy stories. The disastrous mission that Moshe sends to Eretz Yisrael in Parashat Shelach is then echoed in our Haftarah which  tells of the spies whom Yehoshua sent, forty years later, just prior to his successful conquest of Eretz Yisrael. These two missions, both of which were ostensibly for the same purpose, were utterly different in their outcome. Yehoshua’s spies can be read as a sort of commentary on, or reaction to, Moshe’s spies. And Moshe’s spies can be seen as a background for Yehoshua’s own initiative. 

Moshe’s spies were the least secret spies in history. The names of Moshe’s spies were announced in public before their mission had even begun! They were prominent people, tribal chieftains and heads of clans. There was nothing secret about this mission whatsoever. Everyone knew the identities of the spies, and when they returned they delivered their report – not to Moshe alone -  but in front of the entire population. What a predictable disaster! Indeed, the typical words in Biblical Hebrew, lahpor, or l’ragel that refer to spying are never used in connection to the so-called meraglim – Moshe’s supposed spies.  

Yehoshua, by contrast, sends out his spies anonymously. There is no fanfare at their departure, they go and return without names. They give their report only to Yehoshua.  

Ironically, Moshe’s spies conducted a 40 day survey of the length and breadth of Eretz Yisrael. They managed to see everything that they were asked to see, to come back, without having been apprehended, and to present a full report.  

Yehoshua’s spies, however, are discovered right away. They go to Yericho, they meet Rachav, – an innkeeper of one kind or another- and she knows who they are right away. They return to Yehoshua without discovering any strategic information about the country they are about to enter.  And yet their mission is considered successful whereas Moshe’s spy mission precipitates what was, at that time,  the greatest failure in Jewish history. 

The significant difference between Moshe’s failed spy mission and Yehoshua’s successful spy mission was the lack of self-confidence displayed by Moshe’s spies and the incredible self-confidence that Yehoshua’s spies displayed. Ultimately, confidence in one’s path is the  indispensable ingredient for the success of a mission; more important at times than the information that can be collected on a forty day scouting mission.

When Moshe’s spies returned from scouting Eretz Yisrael they recounted how intimidating it was to see the giants who lived there and whom they would need to eventually confront and defeat. We were so puny and small in comparison to those giants, the spies say: וַנְּהִ֤י בְעֵינֵ֙ינוּ֙ כַּֽחֲגָבִ֔ים – we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes – compared to the inhabitants of Canaan.

And then the spies say something else: וְכֵ֥ן הָיִ֖ינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶֽם׃ – and we appeared like grasshoppers in their eyes too.

Abarbanel writes that human nature tends to lead us to overlook our flaws and our weaknesses. If someone admits to feeling as puny as a grasshopper despite our natural tendency  to inflate our own power it stands to reason that others also see you as a puny grasshopper. Rashi says that the spies actually overheard the giant people of Canaan speaking about the spies, “look at those grasshoppers over there” and that’s how they  knew.

But I think this line is a prime example of the catastrophizing that the spies indulged when they faced a legitimately frightening situation. They  interpreted their own subjective fears as though it were an objective reality and then imposed that onto their imagination of how others perceived them. This was a dangerous mistake. Their panic was contagious and it condemned a generation to death in the wilderness. 

But I’m not here today to talk about the Democrats. 

I want to talk about North American Modern Orthodoxy. 

In contrast to Moshe’s spies who saw themselves as grasshoppers, Yehoshua’s spies displayed confidence, not only in their mission, but also in their own ability to interpret how to promote their mission in light of an evaluation of right and wrong. 

We see this in the bold autonomy they displayed when negotiating with Rachav. After saving the spies from the soldiers of the King of Yericho, Rachav imposes an oath on them.

וְעַתָּ֗ה הִשָּֽׁבְעוּ־נָ֥א לִי֙ בַּֽה כִּֽי־עָשִׂ֥יתִי עִמָּכֶ֖ם חָ֑סֶד וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֨ם גַּם־אַתֶּ֜ם עִם־בֵּ֤ית אָבִי֙ חֶ֔סֶד וּנְתַתֶּ֥ם לִ֖י א֥וֹת אֱמֶֽת׃                                                                                         

וְהַחֲיִתֶ֞ם אֶת־אָבִ֣י וְאֶת־אִמִּ֗י וְאֶת־אַחַי֙ וְאֶת־[אַחְיוֹתַ֔י] (אחותי) וְאֵ֖ת כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָהֶ֑ם וְהִצַּלְתֶּ֥ם אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵ֖ינוּ מִמָּֽוֶת׃                                                                                  

Now, since I have shown loyalty to you, swear to me by the LORD that you in turn will show loyalty to my family. Provide me with a reliable sign  that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and save us from death.”

And the spies agree:

                                                              וַיֹּ֧אמְרוּ לָ֣הּ הָאֲנָשִׁ֗ים נַפְשֵׁ֤נוּ תַחְתֵּיכֶם֙ לָמ֔וּת אִ֚ם לֹ֣א תַגִּ֔ידוּ אֶת־דְּבָרֵ֖נוּ זֶ֑ה וְהָיָ֗ה בְּתֵת־ה לָ֙נוּ֙ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְעָשִׂ֥ינוּ עִמָּ֖ךְ חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת׃

“Our persons are pledged for yours, even to death! If you do not disclose this mission of ours, we will show you true loyalty when the LORD gives us the land.”

How did these two, anonymous, spies, have the confidence and the autonomy to negotiate this agreement with Rachav? Did Yehoshua give them that authority? Was that part of their mission? 

Yehoshua’s spies acted with the autonomy to negotiate with Rachav because her claims were obviously just and advantageous and when people have self-confidence in their own religious standing and identity, the confidence in the big picture of their mission gives them the confidence to correctly intuit how to modify that mission in response to new circumstances. Obviously their mission’s success depended on protecting Rachav and so it was obvious to those two spies that agreeing to her terms was the right thing to do.

I wish we had more of that kind of religious self-confidence in American Modern Orthodoxy and I wish we less frequently imagined ourselves to be grasshoppers. 

Modern Orthodoxy is “modern” because we integrate the insights of modernity such as feminism and humanism and rationalism into our life of Torah and mitzvot and, in many ways, our understanding of the Torah itself is inextricably connected to those modern insights, no less than Maimonides’ understanding of every facet of Torah was inextricably connected to truths he learned from philosophy. 

Modern Orthodox Jews are Orthodox because we remain loyal to a spiritual and political community of other Orthodox Jews who defer to poskim, senior halakhic scholars, who are broadly recognized as wielding authority by Orthodox Jews. This can seem circular. And, there are times when Orthodox polemics deploys a version of the “no true Scotsman '' logical fallacy to discredit other views. I call this the “no true posek” logical fallacy. If there is no posek who endorses a certain innovation then any purported posek who does, by definition, must not deserve to be considered as an authoritative source for halakhic guidance. 

However, there is a way out of this self-referential circle but the way out only comes from our self confidence in our mission and in our values and in our internal deliberations that allow us to clarify our priorities. Obedience to the Torah entails some mechanism of authoritative decision making so that all of us can agree, for example,  on what date to celebrate Shavuot or whether turkeys are kosher and a million other questions. But, we ourselves determine which scholars become authoritative by selecting which scholars deserve our deference to their guidance. The “palace of Torah” expands in the spaces that emerge through the dialectic tension of our  faithfulness to our tradition and to our own evaluation of right and wrong. 

The more rooted we are in our tradition, and the more we cultivate a fluency and familiarity with Torah and mitzvot, the greater will be our capacity to integrate the truths that modernity has taught us with integrity and authenticity. Yehoshua’s spies were so confident in their mission that they knew how to pivot in response to Rachav. And that very capacity ensured the success of their mission. 

I have a second Yeshar Koach to share today and this one extends beyond the Joshuas and their families. Over the course of my first year at Ohev Sholom, which comes to an end tomorrow evening, our congregation has engaged in deliberations and debate about our ritual practice in ways that are uncommon for such an early stage of a rabbinic tenure at a congregation. My closest colleagues have been… surprised that ritual practice was on our communal agenda this year in such a significant way. But, we have engaged in those deliberations and debates from a stance of values and out of a deep commitment to do the right thing. I’m inspired by your idealism and feel truly lucky and blessed to live and work among you. 

Tomorrow, I am embarking on my own mission to Israel. It’s not a spy mission, and there is another major difference between my trip and the spy missions we read about this morning: They had never been to Israel. Unlike them, I’ve already lived in Israel for three years and visited many times. But this is a moment of real crisis in the relationship between American Jewry and our brothers and sisters in Israel. This trip, and the fellowship that it launches, will renew my ties to Israeli Judaism and provide a framework for thinking about the relationship between the American Jewish community and our brothers and sisters in Israel. 

When he first put together the “Rabbinic Leadership Initiative” decades ago, Rabbi David Hartman built in multiple trips to Jerusalem over a three year fellowship so that American congregational rabbis who were selected for the fellowship would be able to know when their next trip to Israel would be. That too is a way to cultivate a sense of rootedness and belonging.. I believe our congregation has a role to play in building bridges that can overcome the current crisis and one very important goal for me this summer is to invest in that sense of rootedness out of which all authentic and effective engagement can emerge.  

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784