How much can an idealist know about the world and still not be defeated by it? Consider love: blind love is surely an inferior sort of love—the expression of the fear that the object of love may not be sufficient to justify it; but hope, too must face the problem of ignorance. With too little knowledge, hope may be a delusion; with too much knowledge, hope may be destroyed. To some extent, idealism is always a defiance of the facts—but defy too many of the facts and you court disaster. People who wish to change the world have a special responsibility to acquaint themselves with the world, in the manner of scouts or spies. (“Flaking Paint and Blemishes,” The New Republic, June 10, 2013)
Herein we gain insight to the sin of the spies detailed in this week’s portion. Moses commands twelve spies to scout the land of Israel. Ten bring back a negative report. “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, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:32-33)
Really? Every single one of the inhabitants was a giant? And you were tiny grasshoppers?
The Hasidic master, Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, teaches:
Did the spies lie? Did they make up what they told the people? Obviously not; they told the people exactly what they had seen…. The truth is not necessarily as things appear, but stems from the depths of the heart, from the sources of one’s faith. Truth and faith go hand in hand, and a person does not acquire truth easily and by a superficial glance. What is required is hard work and effort, wisdom and understanding. The spies did not work at finding the truth in God’s word.
Two spies return with a positive report. They do not deny the challenges ahead and the battles that will confront the Israelites. They are also imbued with confidence and seek to inspire the Israelites about their mission. These spies were Joshua and Caleb. “Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, ‘Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of [the land], for we shall surely overcome it.’” (Numbers 13:30) For this reason Joshua and Caleb are the only people among all the Israelites who were born in Egypt as slaves who were allowed to cross into the freedom that would be found in the land of Israel. The people who followed them across the Jordan River were born in the wilderness and not in slavery. Can a slave ever see freedom? Their eyes could only see giants. Those who only see giants blocking their path can never truly achieve liberation.
Joshua and Caleb did not offer the people an unrealistic assessment. They did not suggest an overly optimistic appraisal. Their message was the proper mixture of reality and hope. You can only lead a people to a better future if it is a realistic future. You can only change the world if you know the world.
I recall a modern example. Years ago, in March 2002, I was in Israel at a rabbinic convention. It was during the height of the second intifada and there were daily terrorist bombings in Jerusalem. One morning we gathered to hear Shimon Peres. The night before the Moment Café was bombed and eleven people were murdered. One of the young women who lost her life worked in the Foreign Ministry with Shimon Peres who was then Foreign Minister. He spoke to us about her life, and her funeral that he had just returned from, but then turned to his vision for a new Middle East in which Arab states and Israel would share trade and commerce in a manner similar to the European Union. I thought to myself, “Is he blind? How can we build a new Middle East when suffering daily terrorist attacks?” I want a new Middle East as well. I want a Middle East at peace. My dreams must be tempered by present realities.
Ideals cannot ignore reality. Then again dreams are how we move forward. Visions are how we change our destiny. Allow reality, allow terrorism and fear, to obscure your ideals and the world will indeed never change. Allow dreams to blind you, so that you only see visions of perfection and not present threats, and you will never find security and quiet. Going about our everyday lives is indeed dependent on being unafraid. Building a better future is secured by continuing to hold ideals in our hearts.
I turn to Wieseltier’s insights: “The world may thwart our efforts to improve it, but it cannot thwart our conceptions of it improved; and that is our advantage over it. We can always resume the struggle.” I rely on Hasidic intuitions. Truth and faith must go hand in hand!