by: Mark Kirschbaum on June 14th, 2012 | 1 Comment »
I. The Politics of the Spies
Every community, every people, have in their history great leaders, as well as disastrous leaders whose choices threaten the very existence of the community. The Torah is not embarrassed to relate the failures of leadership of the emerging Hebrew nation, one can presume because it is intuitive that such situations would repeat themselves through history, and perhaps by presenting the failures of vision and failures of nerve, future generations and their leaders would learn how to prevent such errors from transpiring. This message may be particularly timely now, given the recent attempts by some of the ultra-Orthodox leadership to confront the technological and social issues of contemporary society by use of force and extreme coercion.
In our text, the Israelites are nearing their destination, and the decision is made (by whom? there are two alternatives given-in Devarim the people demand it, but here, it seems to be an ambivalent command from Gd) to send spies to check out the new land, Canaan. The spies secretly enter Canaan for forty days, and return with large fruits and sordid tales of unconquerable giants. Calev and Yehoshua take the minority position up against the other ten spies, but it is too late- the people’s spirit is broken, and a punishment, forty more years of desert time, is immediately meted out.
What went wrong? Why did the spies, all identified by the text as “leaders of the community” (roshei benei yisrael hema), show such a remarkable failure of nerve? Or was it more malignant than that?
There must be more to the story than the linear outline in the text; something deeper than simple fear was operative in the spies’ story. The Zohar suggests that underlying their distorted report was a realpolitik intention of prolonging the desert stay, maintaining the “status quo” so that they would remain as the leaders of the people. The spies, currently the political leadership of the desert people, sensed that settling the land would require an entirely different type of leadership, and as is usually the case with politicians, they were not interested in relinquishing control to a new generation. As is often the case, the disastrous decisions made by leadership are made as a result of trying to maintain their own control, rather than recognizing the new situation and adapting.