Thursday, 11 Jun 2020

Written by Elliott Karstadt

coronavirus covid-2019 Girl in mask fear

Many people know the story of the twelve spies who go into the Land of Canaan, to scout it out in advance of the Israelites’ invasion of the land. Ten of the spies come back despairing that the inhabitants of the Land are too powerful and will successfully repel their advances: ‘it is a land that consumes its settlers’ (Num 13:32). Only Joshua and Caleb are confident that, with God’s help, the children of Israel will be able to possess the Land (Num 14:8). The people are better persuaded by the pessimistic ten and complain bitterly that they had better return to Egypt (a frequent suggestion in the book of Numbers). Although Moses is able to persuade God to remit the initial punishment for this lack of faith on the part of the people – that God destroys them all and starts again with Moses – they are still punished with the edict that they are to continue to wander in the wilderness for forty years, and none of those who were alive to see Egypt will be allowed to enter the Promised Land.

Similarly, the leaders of the Jewish community are at the moment considering entering the new world that lies beyond the wilderness of lockdown. Some are confident that we can stride into this unknown future with nothing but faith. Others are desperate to return to the way things were before lockdown and don’t necessarily see the need for any new measures to keep us safe. And yet others are simply concerned about what it will mean to move out of lockdown and into a new reality, whatever that may hold. All of these perspectives are valid, as long as we are clear about our priorities.

When they return from scouting the Land, the spies say of those who already inhabit the land: ‘they are stronger than us’ (Num 13:31). A discussion in the Babylonian Talmud suggests that we should read the Hebrew for ‘than us’ – mimenu – not by this meaning, but by its other meaning: ‘than him’ (b.Arakhin 15a). Thus, the rabbis of the Talmud suggest that the true crime of the spies was some kind of heresy – that they believed the power of the occupants of the Land to be greater than God. Thus, it could be argued that their real crime was that they stopped arguing for the sake of heaven – they started to think that the threats posed by the people in the land were somehow able to overcome God. This means that their arguments are based on a skewed vision – one that was not based on the collective vision of the Israelites represented by the covenant with God.

The question of how and when to reopen our economy is ultimately one that will be driven by politics, and this is how it should be. Although scientific experts can provide information on which to base decisions, that scientific data only tells us about the consequences of political actions – it does not provide us with the basis on which to judge those outcomes or weigh them against each other. Similarly, the reopening (or not) of our buildings, and the resumption of in-person religious life will take a huge amount of discussion and compromise. In the course of that discussion, we should be charitable with one another. We should not assume that those who want to open up are being callous towards the health of vulnerable individuals. Similarly, we should not assume that those who are determined not to open up do not value our tradition or the value of praying together and supporting each other. Any debates that we have around it should be for the sake of heaven – for the good of the collective vision of the Jewish community, represented by our covenant with God.

The medieval commentator Rashi argues that when God tells Moses shala lekha – to send the spies into the Land – that in fact it had been the people’s idea, and that God was simply acquiescing to their request. In reality, God would much prefer if the people had gone in with blind faith. When they return they are full of accounts of what they have seen with their eyes, visions which are significantly distorted from reality: ‘we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have been in their eyes’ (Num 13:33).

Our tradition is full of instances in which it is better to have faith without seeing. Moses is denied his repeated requests to see God. Sight is a potentially deceiving thing. When the Israelites agreed to the covenant at Sinai, they affirm na’aseh venishmah (‘we shall do and we shall hear’) – the emphasis of the covenant is on hearing rather than seeing. And perhaps this also feeds into the fact that for so many centuries, our traditions were passed on orally and were not written down – that somehow there was faith that oral transmission was less likely to become obscure, and the ear was less deceived than the eye. Consider the famous experience of the Prophet Elijah: ‘And behold, the ETERNAL passed by, and a great strong wind tore apart [the] mountains and shattered [the] rocks before the ETERNAL. [But] the ETERNAL was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake, [but] God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire, but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still small voice’ (1 Kings 19:11-13). God is experienced as a voice and not as an appearance.

And yet, later in the parashah, we are told to carry around with us a visual reminder of the mitzvot, in the form of tsitsit, the tassels attached to our prayer shawls or to any four-sided garment (Num 15:37-41). The idea is that we look upon the tassels and are reminded of the commandments – hence the importance of wearing prayer shawls in the morning when they can be seen by the light of the sun, and not necessarily in the evenings. Perhaps, having expected blind faith from the Israelites at the beginning of the portion, God has accepted that humans need to both hear and see, and that our vision might not just cause us to forget the covenant but might also remind us of it. Whatever we decide as a community to do in the coming months, let us remember that we do it accompanied by divinity (however we understand this elusive concept) and the ethical imperatives that come with it.

Elliott Karstadt 5th year rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.