Three Hebrew letters and the course of Jewish history is changed
It’s never easy going into the unknown, much more tempting to seek refuge in that which is familiar, unchallenging, known. Twelve scouts return from reconnoitring the land. Ten of them say: “yes, the land is indeed flowing with milk and honey ….אפס , effes, however” – oh that ‘simple ‘however’ (Num. 13:28)! Just three Hebrew letters and the course of Jewish history is changed.. “The people there are giants and we were like grasshoppers in their eyes” (Num. 13:33). And that sets the cat among the pigeons. The people clamour to go back to Egypt, where life was, apparently, so bounteous, so wonderful. Once again, the old complaint of the people: “why did you bring us into the desert to die?” (Num. 14:3).Only two of the twelve – Joshua and Caleb – give a minority report arguing that the Israelites can conquer the land (Num. 14:7-9). But their words fall on deaf, unreceptive ears.
Not to move forward, to stay where you are, to regress, in other words to rely on what we have, is very tempting, for what we have, we know; we can hold onto to it, feel secure in it. We fear, and consequently avoid, taking a step into the un known, the uncertain; for, indeed, while the step may not appear risky to us after we have taken it, before we take that step the new aspects beyond it appear very risky and, hence, frightening. Only the old, the tried, is safe; or so it seems. Every new step contains the danger of failure.
Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be?
What a slap in the face it must have felt to the four leaders. Moses and Aaron go and seek guidance from God, but Joshua and Caleb cut keriah, tear their garments, the age-old sign of mourning. A curious thing to do at this point, for nobody has actually died. Yet it is significant and revealing. They must be grieving something, mourning a loss of some sort. This isn’t like the people grumbling about the food they have to eat; nor is it a rebellion against Moses’ leadership (serious though the latter might be).
No! The clamour to return to Egypt is to call into question, actually to reject, the very purpose of the Exodus, the journey they have been on, the very reason why they left Egypt in the first place. Getting out of Egypt was no more than a necessary first step to get them out of Egyptian bondage, to bring them via Mount Sinai to the Promised Land. There is a vision inherent in all that of a freed people, freely choosing to commit themselves to God and live by the Torah.
But God says “enough already!” and wants to put an end to it all: “I’ll wipe out this troublesome people, Moses, and start off again with you, build a nation around you” (Num. 14:12). Moses has to employ all his oratorical skills to persuade God that may not be a good idea. He uses a sort of “what will the neighbours say?” argument. “You were able to get them out of Egypt but you simply weren’t able to get them to the Promised Land.” God relents but there’s a quid pro quo: the people won’t be able to enter the land until the generation that left Egypt has died out.
Hence Joshua and Caleb cutting keriah. For them, something died at that moment. A vision perhaps of the Promised Land, what they understood by the journey they were on and what the people’s call for a return to Egypt represented. To be fair, it’s hard to hold on to a vision. A vision might be little more than a flash of lightning which illumines a darkened landscape with razor-sharp clarity. But the next instant the darkness returns and you struggle to recall the detail of what you saw.
Those who are critical of something often claim that they’re not being negative but, rather, ‘realistic,’ implying that they, at least, have their feet on the ground while others are the ‘dreamers’ who don’t really know what’s what. Indeed they often claim to be speaking for some groundswell of opinion with which the leaders are out of touch. That might be a nice conceit but it is no more than self-delusion. ‘Dreamers’ feet are usually as much on the ground as the self-styled ‘realists.’
Those 10 scouts gave the game away when they claimed “we felt like grasshoppers in our eyes and that’s how we must have seemed to them” (Num. 13:33). How could they possibly have known how they seemed to others? It tells us very little about the inhabitants of the land but speaks volumes about how the people saw themselves. It masked, not even that effectively, their apprehension about change, their insecurity about – let’s be fair to them – a promised future in a Promised Land which they had no conception of, nor information about.
In such circumstances, it’s easy to give in to fear, despair, even self-annihilation. That’s why Joshua and Caleb did keriah. They knew that what the people were clamouring for wasn’t just a choice about taking longer to get to the Promised Land or finding some other route. They knew that it was a radical choice between life and death – physical life and death, perhaps, in the wastes of the desert; but most certainly the death of the spirit, of the vision, of all it represented.
The people are faced with a very stark choice, one that, is moreover, heavily weighted towards the majority. Ten give the negative report; two the minority report that they can conquer the land.
Had they listened to the ten, the majority, Jewish history would have come to an end – death when they returned to Egypt or death in the desert. Fortunately Joshua and Caleb did ultimately prevail and the people were able to move forwards to that Promised Land – but it had suddenly become a 40-year-long journey. “Every new step,” wriote Erich Fromm, “contains the danger of failure and that is one of the reasons people are so afraid of freedom.”
You can get the Jews out of Egypt. It’s harder to get Egypt out of the Jews.
Rabbi Colin Eimer
Shaa’rei Tsedek North London Reform Synagogue
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.