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Parashat Sh’lah L’kha

June 17, 2009

Perception vs. Reality
By Rabbi Sharon Ballan

One of my favorite television shows when I was
growing up was “All in the Family.” I distinctly remember sneaking out of bed
and watching secretly from the top of the stairway, because it was shown past
my bedtime. Later, my parents let me watch with them and it became a weekly
family ritual. One episode in particular stands out in my mind. Edith, Archie,
Mike, and Gloria are at a restaurant, discussing the events of the day. Their
refrigerator had broken, and a repairman and his helper (who happened to be
black) had come to repair it. Mike and Archie had radically different memories
of what happened. Archie insisted the young black man, large and menacing,
threatened him with a knife. Mike, on the other hand described the man as
gentle and polite, and maintained that there was no knife at all. Finally Edith
tells the real story: the repairman had merely been using a pen knife to cut an

This episode came to mind as I studied this week’s
Torah portion. In parashat Sh’lah
L’kha, God instructs Moses to send 12 men, one from each tribe, to scout out
the land of Canaan and to see if the people who live there are strong or weak.
The men come back after forty days with a glowing report on the land. It indeed
was a “land flowing with milk and honey.” But the people who dwelled in the
land were another story. They were strong and their cities were fortified. They
reported, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its
settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the
Nephilim (giants) there – the Anakites are part of the Nephilim – and we looked
like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Num. 13:32-33)

The whole community was shaken by the report,
and they cried out to Moses to take them back to Egypt! Joshua and Caleb both tried
to assure the people that they could take the land – it was exceedingly good, and
God would bring them into the land, the people in it would be their prey. “Have
no fear of them!” (v. 9) But the community did not believe Joshua and Caleb. They
believed the other 10 spies, and the Israelites were doomed to wander in the
desert for 40 years, until the older generation died out. Only their children
would reach the Promised Land, the land of Israel.

So we have two different perspectives. Which
one was correct? Like the episode in “All in the Family,” both sides have very
different outlooks on what happened. Were they both lying? Or just
exaggerating? Was it the truth to them? Moreover, what prejudices had they
brought to their accounts without even knowing?

The rabbis have different opinions on what the
sin of the spies actually was. In Numbers Rabbah (16:2) we learn that the sin
of the spies is that they engaged in slander (lashon hara) of the land,
much like Miriam and Aaron, at the end of last week’s parashah, slandered Moses.

The Ramban, on the other hand, disagrees.
Perhaps they weren’t lying. The residents of the land were huge; their cities
were well fortified. It would be extremely difficult to overtake them. Their
sin was that they simply didn’t understand their mission. They were sent to get
strategic details about how to take the land, in order to ensure victory, and
they didn’t follow through.

Perhaps, as with Mike and Archie, their
preconceived notions got in the way. The people were not really giants, they
just seemed like giants. “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we
must have looked to them.” Their own fears about themselves got in the way. If
you feel that you are not worthy, surely others will see you that way.

Why is it that the people believed the 10
rather than Caleb and Joshua? One could say that they were outnumbered – 10-2. Or
perhaps it was that the spies took advantage of the situation and struck fear
into the people. Fear is a powerful motivator, and often our fears take over
our rational side. It breeds prejudice. It makes us unable to see clearly, to
see the truth. We can even see it in action today on the political scene, where
some leaders have played the “terror card.”

Only Joshua and Caleb stood up to the ten and
dissented from the majority. It takes courage to do this. Have you ever been in
a situation where you had to stand up and speak the truth where you were in the
clear minority? In the face of negativity and doom it is difficult to see the
positive side of things. Of course it is necessary to have the facts and to see
things clearly. Joshua and Caleb did not contradict the spies’ reports that the
residents of the land were a major force to overcome. They merely had refused
to see themselves as “grasshoppers.”

May we all find the strength within ourselves
to overcome our fears and doubts, to see clearly when faced with pessimism and
negativity, and to find the courage to speak the truth where others are
distorting it.


Rabbi Sharon Ballan was ordained by AJR last