Monday, July 7, 2008

A Persuasive Reading

One of the great things about being a Jew is that it's hard to be a fundamentalist. Our tradition enthusiastically endorses the idea that sacred texts can have multiple meanings, and we should study all of them. Here's a case in point.

Two weeks ago, I was in Willimantic, Connecticut attending the bat mitzvah celebration of my niece Fay Stoloff. Her Torah portion, Sh'lach Lecha, tells the story of how Moses sent spies to the land of Canaan for a report about the country and the people they were about to invade.

This is what they told him: "We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites [a legendary race of giants] there. Amalekites dwell in the Negev region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan."

Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, "Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it."

But the men who had gone up with him said, "We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we....All the people that we saw in it are men of great size...and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them." (Numbers 13: 27-33, Etz Hayim translation)
The traditional reading pictures Caleb (and to some extent Joshua) as confident men of faith, and the other ten spies as cowardly. Men who look like grasshoppers in their own eyes cannot be trusted to give accurate intelligence before a fight. On this reading, from the first word of their report, the ten are dissuading their fellow Israelites from going into the Promised Land.

But Fay's rabbi, Rav Jeremy Schwartz, urges us to read the passage a different way. Look again at that first paragraph, he says. It's a balanced report. The land is fruitful, but the people who live there are powerful, and here is how they're deployed: these ones here, those ones there. It's just the kind of military intelligence a commander would want. The ten have not said, "Be afraid. Be greatly afraid." They have said, "This is not going to be easy."

But Caleb, says Rav Jeremy, can't stand to hear a single word of discouragement. He jumps up on his own to give his rah-rah speech. It's only after that, and in response to his words, that the ten say, "The country that we traveled and scouted is one that devours its settlers." Because he paints such a rosy scenario, they stress the dangers and difficulties even more.

Iraq has turned out to be a country that devours U.S. troops, and we could have avoided this disastrous invasion and occupation if we had listened to the whole message that our spies had given us. But we the people never had that chance. The Bush administration played the part that Rav Jeremy thinks that Caleb played in Sh'lach Lecha. It jumped up and told us the invasion would be a piece of cake, that Iraqi oil wealth would repay all our costs, and that the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms. They knew better, because they had intelligence reports told them different. They read those reports only to find evidence that would support their aggressive intentions. They ignored and suppressed the rest.

The traditional reading of Sh'lach teaches us not to retreat from the powerful when our cause is just. Rav Jeremy's reading, in my opinion, teaches us not to listen to people urging us to ignore aspects of reality when people with a cause tell us to look the other way. It may also teach us that military intelligence is a contradiction in terms, and that if you look at a country from the perspective of how to conquer it, you will misread what's most important about its culture and people.

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