Shelach: Everyone a leader?

July 3, 2016

Good Shabbos… This week’s parasha is Shelach, which includes the
well-known story of the “meraglim” – the spies. The standard understanding
of this story is that it is a cautionary tale of the danger of failing to have faith
in God’s promise, specifically in regard to conquering and inheriting the land
of Canaan. But I’ve often been troubled by this standard understanding of
the story. The Torah makes very clear that these are not your standard
“cloak-and-dagger” spies operating at the shadowy edge of society. Right at
the start of the parasha, it states that these 12 spies, representing each of the
12 tribes, were “everyone a leader among them.” And then, in case we missed it,

in the very next passuk, theTorah again states “They
were all distinguished men, heads of the Children of Israel were they.” In
other words, these 12 recognized “leaders,” these 12 “distinguished men,”
were all clearly from the acknowledged social, political, economic, and
religious elite of the nation. They were clearly from among the “gedolim” of
the society.

In this light, the story of the spies now becomes something very
different from the standard understanding of the story. It’s no longer about
the bad consequences resulting from the nation’s lack of faith in God’s
promise. Rather, it’s about the inherent dangers in placing undue faith in
generally recognized leaders – whether social, political, economic, or
religious. Put simply, I believe the central question raised by the story of the
spies is actually about how these “gedolim,” these recognized “great lights” of
the Jewish people, could have been so wrong and brought such misfortune
on the Jewish nation.

In reviewing the parasha for a possible answer to this
question, I came to Moses’s set of detailed instructions to the spies regarding
the flora, topography, and inhabitants of Canaan, which the spies were to
investigate and report back on. While I didn’t start out to write this dvar with
the intention of drawing any parallel to American history, at this point I
couldn’t resist. I was strongly reminded here of another great leader’s set of
detailed instructions to his reconnaissance party. On June 20, 1803, Thomas
Jefferson gave Lewis & Clark and their aptly named “Corps of Discovery” a
surprisingly similar set of instructions prior to their own famous expedition.
Like Moses’s spies, Lewis & Clark and their Corps of Discovery were also to
investigate and report back on the flora, fauna, topography, and native
inhabitants of an uncharted land – in their case, the vast wilderness of the
newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase. But there was one big difference
between Moses’s 12 spies and Jefferson’s Corps of Discovery.

 

Initially, the Louisiana Purchase had been strongly opposed by elements of America’s
own established elite, elements of America’s own “gedolim.” The strongest
opposition to the Louisiana Purchase came from wealthy and powerful New
England Federalists. These Federalists correctly feared the rising and
democratizing power of the West that the Louisiana Purchase did in fact
represent. Like those hidebound, change-resistant New England Federalists,
Moses’s 12 spies represented the hidebound, change-resistant elements of
the Jewish nation’s ruling elite. Except for Joshua and Caleb, these 12 spies
retained a vested interest – like the New England Federalists -- in maintaining
the status quo. Lewis & Clark and their Corps of Discovery, however, were
not bound by the concerns of the New England Federalists. In other words,
they weren’t bound by the common concerns of most elites. Above all, they
weren’t beholden to the entrenched interests of power, status, celebrity, or
wealth.

Unlike Moses’s reconnaissance party, Lewis & Clark’s Corps of
Discovery approached their task without blinders or bias. The vast
unexplored wilderness of the American West represented for Jefferson and
Lewis & Clark an enormous opportunity for discovery and national
reaffirmation. They eagerly embraced it. In contrast, the unexplored land of
Canaan represented for most of Moses’s band of spies something fearful and
threatening. They actively opposed it…

 

The story of the spies in Shelach is indeed a cautionary tale. But it’s not about

the danger of the people’s lack of faith in God’s promise to inherit the Land.

It’s also not about the danger of being blind to the more intangible possibilities

promised by God to the Jewish people. Rather, the story of the 12 spies was

-- and continues to be -- about the ever-present danger posed by inflated and

unwarranted deference to established elites. It was and is about the danger

posed by inflated and unwarranted deference to the social, political, economic, or religious
“gedolim” of any society in any age. This, I believe, is the real moral of this
cautionary tale, as valid today as ever.

 

Good Shabbos.

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