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.

R. Tzadok Hacohen of Lublin, the Avodat Yisrael, and the Mei Hashiloach, follow this line, with some interesting twists. The Avodat Yisrael and the Mei Shiloach attempt to temper the Zohar’s more cynical approach, by suggesting that the attempt to prolong the journey, and maintain the current leadership, was out of a concern for Moshe as leader; they wanted to “save” Moshe, who they sensed, would not enter the land.

The Avodat Yisrael, states that the blessing that Moshe gives Yehoshua, in order to protect him from sinning, was due to Moshe suspecting that Yehoshua might fall into this conspiracy, beings so loyal to Moshe’s tenure that he would lie in order to keep the people in the desert and prolong Moshe’s leadership. The Mei Hashiloach (who extends this position of desiring a prolongation of Moshe’s rule to all the spies) uses an interesting phrase, calling this an “averah l’shma”, a well intentioned sin. Yet, an error nonetheless, with tragic consequences.

II. The Ethics of the Spies

R. Tzadok has a very surprising reading of this Zoharic approach, a position which, at least the first half would have been cited with approval in the desert version of “Tikkun Magazine” four thousand years ago. He explains that the spies sensed they themselves were not fit to lead a conquest of Canaan- because the inhabitants of Canaan at this time were not guilty enough to merit genocide; they didn’t feel that they as the leadership, or the people of Israel as a totality, had any right to supplant the native inhabitants of the land. This is what is meant by the Zohar’s teaching-the spies felt that there must be some other leadership pending that might attain some other kind of spiritual situation which could in some way justify the extermination and replacement of the Canaanites. In the end, though, R. Zadok argues that they should have simply followed orders, which is a disturbing denouement to an otherwise progressive teaching.

The Tiferet Shelomo of Radomsk presents a reading that also stands as a proper critique of ideologies that claim to know best what is good for the “people”. He argues, a la Rousseau, that the spies decided that they knew better what was for the good of the people than did the people themselves, or God for that matter. The spies noted how bountiful the land was, and what the native cultures were like, so the spies concluded that the minute the Israelites would settle there, they would become ensnared in the temptations of materiality and “the good life”. This temptation, they decided, would lead the people to become wicked, and too similar to the surrounding inhabitants, so they attempted to ban it.

This is what the spies meant in the verse “a land that consumes its inhabitants”- in the spies’ view the glory of the land would making the people earthy and desirous of material comforts. This was message lurking behind the big fruit they brought, to show the people that this beautiful fruit will be the cause of their spiritual downfall, and thus justify blocking access to it.

Calev’s reply, (which is essentially the Radomsker’s message), is that if the people’s will is turned to God, (a rereading of im hafets banu hashem as “if our will within us is to God”) material success will not be a corrupting influence, and yachol nuchal lah, it can be overcome and sublated. The spies had no right to decide that the nation was not ready for a better life. The approach must be, if it is possible to overcome desire and live correctly in the land, then the challenge should be accepted (would more lives have been saved before WWII if the leadership had thought in this way about leaving Europe? What would Orthodoxy look like if its leadership confronted modernity honestly instead of the current approach? Is the new wave of rabbinic “internet banning” more in line with the thought processes of the spies, according to this reading?).

This willingness to face the challenges of normal life is also contained in the Yismach Yisrael’s answer to the question of why the people’s fear here was punished more severely than in other episodes where fear is mentioned, as with Yaakov (Jacob) when confronting his brother: why is this episode read as a sin worthy of punishment as opposed to other narratives of fear? His answer: the fear attributed to Yaakov did not interfere with his actions. Despite his fear, he strode forward. Fear is real, and understandable, however, acting bizarrely or cruelly as a result of fear when in a leadership position, is a behavioral aberration that must be confronted and cured.

II. The Gaze of the Spies

Given the great risks of failure as outlined above, it is fair of us to ask just what Moshe wanted to achieve in sending the spies in the first place. One approach presented in the Hassidic literature we can call the “transformative” approach implies that Moshe sent the spies because he wanted them to purify the land prior to the arrival of the entire people. A textual support comes from the odd phrase “la-tur et haaretz”, to spy out the land, which they read as coming from the root “Torah”; as if Moshe (here I borrow from hip-hop English) wanted the spies to “Torah- up” the land, to transform the land via Torah prior to the arrival of people, a view also presented regarding the mission of the sons of Yaakov to the land of Egypt. This approach is found already in the Lurianic tradition and in Ramchal; in the former the twelve spies represented the accumulated will of the twelve tribes (a reading consistent with the narrative in Devarim in which the people initiate this mission). In the Ramchal, Moshe rounds up the representatives of the tribes in order to transform the people through the spies and their mission. Either way, the idea is not to discover anything about the land, but to act upon the land, in their spying it out. Their gaze was to transform the land in a positive manner. At the beginning of the narrative, Moshe gives a rather detailed set of instructions as to what the spies were to investigate: go up through the south, climb the mountains, and check out the land- is the land fertile or sparse- are there trees or not- what are the people there like, are they strong? Along the lines of this transformative approach, the Noam Elimelech explains that these instructions were not, as we think, things to passively observe about the land, but rather, ways to intentionally look upon the land.

What do we mean with the phrase ‘to transform by looking’? Isn’t vision always a passive phenomenon, a sensory datum, an outside to inside transmission? How can we act and effect by merely looking?

We will turn for help to the growing field of “cinema studies”. Sartre argued that “the look” is a critical component of human interrelationships, which he felt cycled through a sadism-masochism polarity (his version of Hegel’s lordship and bondage), and axis of freedom versus subjugation and shame. The look is generated by the freedom of the ‘for-itself’, but when the looker becomes himself objectified, as in his rather sordid example of the ‘voyeur-caught-looking-through-the-keyhole’, then there is the shame of becoming himself subject to the look of the other.

To Sartre, the only possible relationship between people is one of subjugation, “my being-an-object is the only possible relation between me and the Other” (Being and Nothingness 364), and the thus the recognition of being objectified by another’s glance can be learned from as a means by which to subjugate in return- “I grasp the other’s look at the very center of my act as the solidification and alienation of my own possibilities” (B&N 263).

Lacan argues that Sartre has it backwards. Without getting too detailed here, the argument is that all looking is a reflection of a lack, a need, this “scopic drive” as he calls it, exemplified by the baby’s seeking out “where did Mother go?”. The “gaze” does not emerge out of pleasure seeking, as in Sartre, but is a critical part of the signifying and socializing system in which the child learns that it is an individual, separate from the mother.

On the one hand, this scopic gaze derives from the recognition that the mother is not part of the child, and on the other hand, gaze is a function of the ‘mirror stage’, in which self-identity is learned by seeing oneself reflected in the responses of others (what sounds and actions the baby makes that causes the people around her to smile, and so on).

This gaze, then, is a search for the missing ideal, always outside the self, “what I look at is never what I want to see” and at the same time, “you never look at me from the place from which I see you” (Four Fundamental Concepts pp 103). The gaze is the way in which we construct our self image, to put it simply. Zizek , Lacan’s popularizer, parallels this infant activity with the need of teenagers to emulate pop stars, the concern to appear fashionable, etc. We look in order to know how we should appear. The look derives from a lack, from the lack built in at the outset of our self identity, because our individuality from the start was derived from the gaze of others. This gaze, then, is a social construction, in which we ourselves are constructed, that is, in Lacan’s terminology, it is also a “showing” (in French this works better-le donner a voir, which means also to “give a look”) and at the same time it reflects an innate deficiency; we look to fulfill that which we are missing, that is, the place of that lost object, that lost fantasy. This approach was read into film theory, influentially by Mulvey, as background for an argument that the gaze of the camera in cinema is a male gaze, supplementing the male fantasy, and that male lack is fulfilled by the image of the woman in film. Think of how many use Facebook to redefine themselves and the concept is clear.

Interestingly, in a manner directly relevant to our question of the possibility of “transformative gaze”, Lacan muses that since all gaze is appetitive and related to a lack it makes sense that

“when one thinks of the universality of the function of the evil eye, that there is no trace anywhere of a good eye, of an eye that blesses”.

The Noam Elimelech “responds” that the detailed instructions given by Moshe are meant to offer a context from which to gaze out at the land, a restructuring of their outlook, a means to a “good eye, an eye that blesses”, as it were. “Go to the Negev”, which in Kabbalistic symbolism refers to supernal wisdom, and “climb the mountain”, the mountain being a Talmudic metaphor for the evil inclination, and from that vantage point the look will positively transform the land.

The Noam Elimelech’s disciple, the Bat Ayin, offers that the verse stating, hechazak hu harafeh, normally translated as “discern if the people are strong or weak” is actually lacking the conjunction im, “or”, and thus translates Moshe’s request as: “those who are strong- they are weak”, or even “the letter he that is strong, make it a weak he“. That is: make the letter Heh, that is, the Shekhina, the female aspect of the mystical Godhead that is sensed by our souls, that is in a state of “strength”, of judgment, into a Heh rafeh, a soft He, transform it into the divine attribute of love and mercy. Thus, with their gaze, the spies were meant to transform the spaces into which they entered. How one look at something determines how that something will be experienced.

The inability to rise to this challenge (how achieving a positive outlook is such a difficult challenge!) was the root of the mission’s failure. The Kotzker asks why the spies deserved such punishment if after all, they only reported what they saw. Did they fabricate anything? They merely related the harsh reality, after all, no different than any political columnist!

The key to their failure is determined by the Kotzker as being contained in one verse: 13:33- “There we saw giants, and compared to them we were like insects- and so we were in their eyes”. The Kotzker pinpoints their failure within this final clause. You were vermin in their eyes? How could you possibly know that? Perhaps they thought you were the most frightening warriors they ever saw? Thus, they revealed their own self image, their own consciousness, which was one of cowardice and weakness, one which supports a reading in which the goal from the outset of the spies/leaders was to demoralize the people. The spies revealed, as per Lacan, that their gaze was deficient, thus revealing why they were not the right leadership for people about to build a new world for themselves.

“How” one sees determines the kind of society one will construct; it is worth noting the emphasis that the Baal Shem Tov placed on an active “looking” in which even apparent sins and flaws of those around you must be read and interpreted in a positive manner.

The “judgements” and “conclusions” one derives from the way one looks upon the world are determinative of what the world one inhabits consists of, and if it appears to the individual as hostile and bad, it will “be” hostile and bad. If you choose to view the world and all its inhabitants as beautiful, the world you inhabit can become correspondingly beautiful.

In closing, I would just suggest that perhaps this is why the perasha ends with the commandment relating to tzitzith, the ritual fringes, in which we are informed that “you shall see them and you shall the remember all the mitzvoth and do them”- the BT Menachot 43: explains- gaze leads to memory, and memory to action. I would suggest that “memory” here is the phenomenological starting point from which we structure our outlook, and thus, this realignment can bring us to transformative praxis. We need to learn to see, passively to recognize the spirit and beauty in all that surrounds us, and actively, to “see” the things that makes our world a better place (and not simply ban everything that challenges us…).

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