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Shelach Lecha

Some thoughts about the weekly Torah portion and contemporary events...  There is currently a heated debate about the limits of secrecy and the public disclosures about the Obama administration’s clandestine efforts against Iran and Al Qaeda.  In particular the current administration is accused of using its covert successes for political gain.  Let me offer a few contributions to this discussion.

It should first be noted that all presidents use the spy agencies for their own political advantage.  President Bush certainly used them to bolster his desire to invade Iraq.  In fact it now appears that the claims of WMD were based on faulty intelligence at best or completely fabricated reports at worst.  When making such judgments about our leaders we tend to be more forgiving of those politicians we support and more critical of those we don’t like.  Such is human nature.  We must therefore cast these feelings aside and debate these matters in an open and honest way.

Secrecy always advantages the person in power.  The powerful shape the discussions by controlling the dissemination of information.  That is why a democracy must debate even its most secretive efforts.  In a democracy the application of military power, whether clandestine or not, must be debated openly.  The specifics of how that power is wielded should be kept from public view, however.  Troop placements, weapons’ capabilities, covert methods and the like should not be disclosed.  Otherwise security is potentially compromised.  Still, the questions about the use of computer viruses, for example, have never been forthrightly discussed.

There seems little doubt in my mind that these weapons might one day be turned against us.  Yet I still believe it is worth these risks in order to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons.  Whether to use such weapons is however a legitimate point of debate.  I believe as well that we should assassinate Al Qaeda leaders using any means necessary.  Yet again this is a legitimate point of public debate.  It does not compromise American security to debate these questions.  It instead strengthens American democracy.  While I might be fascinated about the specific methods I don’t need to know them.

And so we must argue about what we believe are the goals of such methods.  When states use violence to protect its citizens or project good other values are inevitably compromised.  Do we agree that drone attacks and cyber warfare are legitimate?  Steven Aftergood said,Secrecy cloaks not only the operations, but their justification and rationale, which are legitimate subjects of public interest.”  (The New York Times)

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Send men to spy the land of Canaan…’  (Numbers 13:1)  Ten of the spies return with a worrisome report.  “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we….  The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.  All the people that we saw in it are giants…  and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves…”  (13:31-33)  Joshua and Caleb, while not denying the details of the report, offer encouraging words, suggesting that the Israelites would be successful in their attack.

God becomes enraged with the ten spies and the people’s subsequent lack of faith.  God says in effect, “How can they doubt that they will be successful?  It does not matter how mighty their adversaries might be.”  God withdraws support.  The Israelites still attack.  They are defeated.  “And the Amalekites and Caananites who dwelt in that hill country came down and dealt them a shattering blow at Hormah.” (14:45). 

Throughout the centuries commentators have argued that the Israelites were defeated because they lacked faith.   They marched forward without their leader Moses and without the symbol of their faith, the Ark of the Covenant.  Is it possible, however, that the spies report was accurate and that the Israelites were not ready to defeat a more powerful enemy?  Do we see instead see a glimmer of democracy when the spies bring their report to the entire people?  Perhaps it is not as the Torah and our subsequent tradition would suggest all about having the correct attitude and faith.  Perhaps it is instead about the accuracy of the report and reaching a consensus among the people.

Forty years later Joshua finally leads the people against the same giants of the land, although now the Israelites are only those who were born in the wilderness and not those born into slavery.  The Haftarah reports the details of how the Israelites now scout the land.  Joshua, like Moses, first sends spies to the region of Jericho.  They find their way to the house of a harlot named Rahab and stay there for the night.  (Such operational details we might not wish to know!) 

She hides them from the town’s soldiers and confides in them an assessment of her people’s mood.  “I know that the Lord has given the country to you, because dread has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you…”  (Joshua 2:9)  The spies then make their way back to Joshua and offer a brief, but positive report, although only to Joshua.  Is Joshua less democratic than his predecessor?   Is waging a successful war and the secrecy it too often entails contrary to the democratic spirit?  Joshua then successfully leads the people in battle against the inhabitants of the land, conquering the land of Canaan for the first time.

We appear to find ourselves in similarly turbulent times.  And I get nervous when leaders speak too readily about making war.  I also get nervous when leaders speak too easily about making peace with our sworn enemies.  I am left to rely on my confidence in democracy and the legitimacy of the debate it must foster.  Secrecy offers me little comfort.

I am left as well to rely on the courage of Joshua. “Be strong and resolute…” (Deuteronomy 31:23)