Thursday, June 11, 2009

Seeing is Believing? Think Again!

The twelve spies make their way to Eretz Canaan. G-d didn't say 'check out the land and see if you want it,' but when the people came to Him, He said, 'I'm not commanding you to survey the Land first, but if you want - go for it.'

So they did, twelve of them. Before they went on their mission, Moses who know something was awry, turned to his young charge, formerly Hoseah, and gives him a special blessing, as well as a new name, Joshua. G-d had an extra letter yud in his alphabetical storehouse - he had taken it from Sarah, formerly Sarai; so, through Moses, he gave it to Joshua. Joshua was then hooked up to the tradition - it became part of him. While Caleb, with no such protexia, makes a short side trip of his own, to Hebron. He went to the site of the tomb of the patriarchs - where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried. As our sages explain, Caleb did not simply have an extra day on his tour - he went to pray. But why at Hebron? and how did that save him from the bad council of the spies?

Hebron is described as seven years older than Egypt's capitol, Tzo'an. But our sages point out that the city that Ham built for his youngest son Canaan could not have been built before the city he built for his eldest, Mitzrayim or Egypt. So Hebron took precedence over Tzo'an not - as the simple meaning of the verse suggests - because it was older, but because it was more praiseworthy. It was not seven years older, but seven times better.

Obama lingered at the pyramids recently; he couldn' t get enough of Paris. It's unlikely - this is not a political statement - that he'd spend much time in Hebron. Our sages tell us there is no place in Israel more barren and rocky than Hebron - for that reason it was set aside as a cemetery. The ugliest terrain in the Land of Israel - why, again, did the tour bus stop here? Tzo'an, by contrast, is the choicest real estate in Egypt - not only the center of commerce and government, but like G-d's garden, a hybrid of Manhattan and East Hampton. And yet, Hebron was considered better.

So the two, Joshua blessed by Moses, and Caleb on his way from Hebron, join the rest of the spies. The latter bring a dire report. 'True, there are giant grape clusters, and true the land flows with milk and honey - but the cities are fortified, and the land occupied by giants!' Not only that, they related, 'the land consumes its inhabitants; the giants were busy burying their dead!' With all of this, the spies conclude: 'We are not able to go up against the nation, for they are more powerful than we are.'

Yet Caleb and Joshua have a different report - didn't they see the dangers that so rattled the spies?

While empiricists from Francis Bacon to Katie Courik tell us that seeing is believing, the story of the spies tells us that the reverse is true. The spies, our sages tell us, from the moment they went out on their mission had their plan in mind - and so everything that they see reinforces their already foregone conclusion - 'better to have died in Egypt; we are not going to the Promised Land.'

Yet Caleb and Joshua see differently - their sight is informed by their connection to their past. Joshua's connection is intrinsic - his name has changed. Caleb, without such benefit, goes to Hebron - which becomes his school for seeing. The place which is the most rocky and most barren - to the naked eye - is the richest. So Caleb learns a kind of vision, not tied to externals, but rather rooted in faith and the history of the patriarchs. Both Caleb and Joshua see things not with the eyes of the empiricist - 'seeing is believing,' but rather their belief allows what them to see. G-d promised the Land to the people of Israel. So Caleb and Joshua bring their own report to the people of Israel: 'The land is very very good.'

It comes down to vision - and how we see the world reflects on how we see ourselves. The spies see giants burying their dead as part of the movie, 'Canaan, Resident Evil'; Joshua and Caleb look at the same event as the continuation of the movie that began in Egypt: 'Chasdie Hashem, G-d's Beneficent Acts.' Yes, G-d had wrought plague on the giants, but not to show a land that ate its inhabitants, but to distract the giants from noticing the intrusive presence of the spies.

So it's not only Caleb and Joshua whose self-conception affects their vision. 'We were like grasshoppers in our eyes,' the spies say, and so 'we appeared in the eyes of the inhabitants of the Land.' Caleb and Joshua saw themselves as descendants of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs - they felt they deserved the Land, not on the basis of their own merits, but on the basis of the traditions of their forefathers. 'Even if G-d tells us to build ladders to go up to the Heavens - we will succeed at whatever He says.' Such is the power of those who see themselves as fulfilling the will of G-d.

But the spies were more realistic, not only about the world, but about themselves. 'Come off it,' they thought to themselves - 'are we really that different from the seven nations who inhabit the Land? What gives us the right?' Their realism extended to themselves - 'we are a people like any other people. Can we claim to be morally superior? are we better than the nations?' And so the verse 'they were grasshoppers in their own eyes, and thus became grasshoppers in the eyes of the inhabitants' should be understood in terms of cause and effect: Because they were diminished in their own eyes, they were diminished in the eyes of the seven nations.

But more than that - how they saw themselves diminished G-d. When the spies say of the inhabitants of the Land - 'they are more powerful than we are!' (mimen'u in the original), they also express another thought, 'they are more powerful than Him' (mimen'o, spelled the same with just a change in the vowel). G-d's power - of course - is never be diminished, but because of their image of themselves, they diminished G-d's power in relation to them. 'If you want to conduct yourself according to the laws that govern the nations of the world, go ahead,' G-d challenges them. 'I will act accordingly.' And so the people of Israel become grasshoppers to the nations, and though Caleb had said with confidence, 'they are our bread,' it is the nations who feast on the people of Israel.

If only the people had listened to Caleb who had taken his degree in the Hebron school of seeing. Is it possible that without a similar education (for we can't hope for letters from the divine), we may also diminish G-d and His powers in relationship to us - because of our realistic, but all too diminished, sense of ourselves?


Eliyahu Enriquez said...

"Dreams are fulfilled according to their interpretation" (Berachot 55b).

wdk said...

interesting parallel - does that mean that it's all a matter of interpretation? were the rabbis post-modernists before their times? not sure if that is the case - i've thought about this in the framework of my my own post on freud, the rabbis and dreams...