Unity and Leadership

Shelah Lekha By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jun 13, 2014 / 5774

At the very beginning of this week’s parashah, Moses organizes a mission to scout out the land of Canaan. As the Israelites stand on the verge of dispossessing the Canaanite nations, God commands Moses to reconnoiter the territory through the agency of 12 men representing each of the tribes. They are given specific instructions: “Go up there in to the Negev and into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land” (Num. 13:18–20). Unfortunately, we know well that the mission goes awry as the majority of the scouts despair of the chance of conquest. And a grammatical inconsistency seems to give us a clue as to the unfortunate unfolding of events. Numbers 13:22 states, referring to the scouts, that they “went up to the Negev,” using the plural of the verb (vaya’alu); however, it continues by stating, “it/he came to Hebron,” employing the singular (vayavo). How may we understand this discrepancy, and what does it teach us?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains,

The singular vayavo is striking. According to Sotah 34b, it refers to Caleb, who journeyed there to pray on the grave of the forefathers for strength to stand up against the intentions of his colleagues. Confirmation can be found in Deuteronomy 1:36, where it says, “and to him will I give the land upon which he has walked,” and in fact Caleb did get Hebron . . . But in any case, there is nothing at all in the context of our verse to make Caleb or any other individual, the subject of vayavo . . . We would therefore actually believe that vayavo refers to the whole company. It is put in the singular to indicate that up to Hebron they came “as one man” in complete unison in feelings and unanimity of mind and purpose. They went up from the south and came in unison to Hebron. But there they saw the descendants of giants . . . and this brought about the wavering alteration in their courage and resolutions. It is not impossible to connect this way of thinking with that argued in Sotah. Until Hebron the predominating influence of Caleb kept them all in the same mood of courage, determination and faith. In Hebron, Caleb felt the beginning of the difference between himself and the others. (Commentary on Numbers, 201–202)

Hirsch’s commentary is masterful in attempting to resolve peshat (literal understanding) and midrash (homiletical interpretation). While Hirsch does well to allude to the talmudic midrash claiming that vayavo refers to Caleb, he notes that there is nothing in the literal sense of the verse that should lead us to such an understanding. Rather, he sees the use of the singular as reflecting the emotional state of the scouts. They set out to Hebron to accomplish their mission with a unified sense of purpose. Regrettably, their unity degenerates into chaos as their spirits are dampened by what they uncover. Caleb however proves to be of another mindset—and he succeeds in separating himself from communal despair. Hirsch poetically resolves the textual conflict by arguing that the transition from plural to singular, and back to plural represents a liminal moment. While they arrive in Hebron of one heart, they leave disheartened, heading in many directions. Only Caleb can envision a different, more hopeful scenario. May we, like Caleb, strive to be unified with our community—but when the challenge arises, may each of us find the gumption within us to be the lone dissenting and rational voice. It is often such a heroic voice that redeems an entire nation.

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