Perception and Practice

Shelah Lekha By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Jul 1, 2000 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

Six years ago, while studying in Israel, a close friend, my father and I decided to make a two day camping trip to Eilat and then to St. Catherine’s Monastery which sits at the foot of what Christian tradition believes to be Mt. Sinai. For me, this was my second pilgrimage to this extraordinary site; my first hike up Jebel Musa (Mt. Sinai) had taken place two years earlier. And so as the experienced one, I planned out the hike such that we would begin hiking from the monastery at about four in the afternoon – enough time to avoid the intense heat of the mid–day sun and to also allow plenty of time for us to reach the summit in time to see the sun set. Along the trek, we were treated to magnificent vistas of desert colors playing off the mountains comprising the Sinai Desert. Of course such views prompted us to take numerous pictures. About an hour into our ascent, I paused along the path to ask my friend to take a picture of my father and me against the dramatic mountain backdrop. The friend agreed and I selected a spot where my father and I would stand for the ‘pose.’ But my father protested, calling me crazy for picking such a treacherous location. I couldn’t understand the commotion. The site was on the edge of the path but certainly not on a cliff. From my father’s vantage point however (since he had been hiking on the inner part of the path hugging the mountain), it appeared to be a vertical drop off the path. Neither of us was willing to compromise on our sacred perceptions of reality. Of course the friend, waiting patiently to take the picture found the whole episode humorous and acknowledged that we were both right. But we stubbornly refused to acknowledge the subjectivity of our respective perceptions.

Sight and perception play a central role in this week’s parasha. At the beginning of Shelah–Lekha, God tells Moses to send out a representative from each tribe “to scout (v’yaturu) the land of Canaan” (Numbers 13:2). This Hebrew root (t–w–r) meaning “to seek out, spy out, and explore” appears eleven times throughout the story of those sent out to explore the land. Moreover, this root is complemented by the more familiar Hebrew word, “to see”, as evidenced by Moses’ instructions to the spies, “Go up there into the Negev and on to the hill country and see what kind of country it is” (Numbers 13:17).

At the close of the forty day mission of scouting the land, the spies return to Moses and Aaron with a seemingly objective report of their reconnaissance mission. They detail what their eyes have seen, telling Moses “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” (Numbers 13:27–28). Nothing of what this group of spies reports is unfactual. Indeed, this group reports what they have experienced in their journey to the Land of Canaan. This is indeed the reality that they have seen and justifiably fear. However, their implicit conclusion from what they have seen is that the Israelites are incapable of conquering and possessing the Land of Canaan.

Caleb’s perception and conclusion is quite different from that of his fellow spies. Caleb expresses no objection to the report of his colleagues but does object to their implicit conclusion. Despite what he has seen, Caleb understands the larger context in which the Israelites find themselves. God has promised this people that they would inherit this land. And despite what Caleb has seen with his own eyes, he cannot accept it at face value. He urges his fellow Israelites, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall overcome it” (Numbers 13:30). The same experience brings him to a radically different conclusion: don’t just accept what your eyes have seen; there is a context and that context is not inconsequential. Out of fear that Moses and Aaron will accept Caleb’s report, the more numerous, fearful contingent goes out of its way to exaggerate the dangers awaiting the unsuspecting Israelites, remarking that “the country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people we saw in it are men of great size …we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:32–33). Desperate to have their perceptions and recommendations affirmed, the scouts accentuate their own feelings of inadequacy and venture to describe how the Canaanites must have perceived them.

While the Torah and the later rabbinic tradition clearly side with Caleb’s perception, the initial report of the ‘other side’ was not fabricated. They were indeed honest in reporting what they had seen. Had both sides been more trusting and understanding of the other, the whole episode could have unfolded differently. Caleb could have acknowledged the deep seated fear underlying the account of the other scouts; and the other scouts could have acknowledged the deeply rooted faith of Caleb and God’s Promise – that despite what they had seen, God had vowed to let the Israelites possess this land. They could have combined the wisdom of their perceptions instead of accepting one and discarding the other.

A midrash from Tanhuma 7 explains why God reacted so angrily to the spies’ report that “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them.” God rebukes the scouts: “You don’t know what you have just let your mouths utter. I am ready to put up with your saying, ‘we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers.’ But I do take offense at your asserting, ‘and so were we in their eyes.’ Could you possibly know how I made you appear in their eyes? How do you know but that in their eyes you were like angels?” Hence the transgression of the spies was assuming that they knew how others perceived them. It is one thing to understand yourself in a particular circumstance; it is another thing to project that understanding upon others especially when it leads the people to a sense of distrust in God’s Promise. If you desire to know how others perceive you, ask. If you need the courage to begin a new task, muster the courage inwardly.

Our sight and perception lead us to remember and observe the mitzvot, so that we are not led astray by misperception. Perhaps this is why Parashat Shelah Lekha closes with the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit, fringes on our four–cornered garments. God instructs Moses that the Israelites make these fringes but more importantly, to look at these tzitzit: “look at it (u’reitem oto) and remember (u’zkhartem) all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow (v’lo taturu) your heart and eyes in your lustful urge” (Numbers 15:39). Notably, the verse employs as a cautionary term the same verb (taturu, from the root t–w–r) that enabled the spies to stray; do not rely solely on empirical experience. Life, faith and moral living entail another dimension – the invisible hand of God with its expectations and promise. By looking upon this ritual garment, we come to remember God’s many promises and in so doing, learn to trust God.

Promise and trust are woven together. If both Caleb and the scouts had taken promise and trust to heart, each could have seen the other’s point of view. And if both my father and I had learned that lesson before our trek up Mt. Sinai, we could have avoided a disagreement … and to think it all took place in the same part of the world separated by some three thousand years!

With Wishes for a Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz