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Shelach Lecha: Falling in Love Again


For several years before October 7th, we had fallen out of love with our people and our land. As the Israeli singer Hanan Ben Ari implied in his song “Apart from Football,” (חנן בן ארי - חוץ מכדורגל (קליפ רשמי) Hanan Ben Ari (youtube.com) we felt there was little to be passionate or excited about besides sport. Routine and boredom had engendered apathy. But on October 8th, Jews once again fell in love with their people and their land. The passion we had lost was rekindled. We were awakened from the slumber of our assumed inheritance, and by undergoing a near-death experience that exposed our fragility, we adjusted our lenses and saw our reality in a different light.

If Bereshit is a book about the road to character for the individual and the family, then Bamidbar is a book about the road to growth for the nation. The nation progresses from moans and cries to speech and thoughtful eloquence, from looking back to looking forward, from despair to hope. They transform from seeing themselves as grasshoppers to seeing themselves as fighters ready to enter a land and fight for their national destiny. However, every transformation is paved with loss and pain.

To grow up requires a process of maturation. It involves breaking out of old modalities and adopting new ones, facing adversity and building resilience, learning to look at reality and interpret it without illusions, but with a dose of pragmatic optimism that engenders meaning and agency.

The story of the spies is a story about failure. It's the failure of the princes of the tribes, whose low self-worth colors their report of a good land. It's the failure of the people, who hear the report and are not mature enough to question its veracity, instead resorting to a temper tantrum laced with tears and sulking in their rooms (or rather, their tents). It's also the failure of a leader whose unwavering belief in the capacity for a quick and painless transformation from a slave nation to a fighting one was too optimistic at best, and delusional at worst.

There are many inconsistencies in the story itself, as well as in the two accounts of it in the Torah—one in Bamidbar and one in Devarim (when Moshe recounts the story to the next generation). One of these inconsistencies is related to the purpose of the mission. Two words are invoked throughout the various narratives. One is לרגל, which means to spy (a reconnaissance mission). The other is לתור, which is something more akin to ‘touring’ or being a tourist. One is about fact-finding to win a battle, the other is about forming an impression of a land. One is objective, the other subjective. One is pragmatic, the other fanciful and romantic. One asks you to look for weaknesses, the other for strengths.

Ian Leslie, in a book called Curious, describes two ways we ask questions about the world: puzzles and mysteries. The first is like a puzzle that needs to be solved; it commands our curiosity until it has been deciphered. A mystery, by contrast, never stops inviting inquiry. It can become a journey that constantly piques our curiosity and leads us down unknown alleys. He invites us to think more about the way we approach problems and questions. He writes: “When we come across a puzzle of any kind, we should always be alert to the mystery that lies behind it, because it might be a mystery that will occupy and entertain us long after the puzzle is solved.”

 

I suggest that the two words used by the Torah and Moshe in the account of the spies can be categorized as a puzzle and a mystery. When the people are told to לרגל (to spy the land), the demand is to ask questions as we do with a puzzle, requiring an objective, practical, and final answer. To fight battles, we need battle plans. To win a war, we need intelligence missions with answers. The information needs to be objective and practical. It needs an eye that points out strengths and weaknesses and reports them as they are.

However, the word לתור suggests a very different kind of mission. It demands a perspective that addresses the mystery rather than the puzzle. It has a romantic air to its report. Like a tourist, this element of the mission required each person to fall in love with the new land. To bring back a report that would nurture curiosity and passion, fascination, and interest. This report would not provide final answers or an objective account but instead engender a sense of awe and wonder—the kind of sentiment one needs when journeying into undiscovered territory.

Maybe the inability of the spies and the people to differentiate between these two missions, and to detect the nuanced difference between them, meant they were not prepared to enter the land. Part of the maturation process of any human being is the ability to know when a situation demands practical, objective data and when it requires nuanced, subjective interpretation that cultivates meaning. Knowing when to apply the certainty of answers and rules that are goal-oriented and when to engage in curiosity, exploration, uncertain turns, and pursuits of the journey rather than the destination. Knowing when to see the destination and when to see the flowers along the path.

The wilderness generation were slaves. They could not live with ambivalence or nuance. They were goal-oriented, rule-regulated, and fenced in by boundaries. It is no surprise that when they tried to engage in a directive that demanded both puzzle and mystery, both fact-finding and interpretive pursuit, they ultimately failed. When they went to a land that was one of milk, honey, and colossal fruit, but also giants and arch-enemies, they resorted to binary thinking. And because they already doubted their own capabilities and were drowning in fear and anxiety at the prospect of becoming independent agents of their own destiny, they naturally spiraled into cognitive distortion. The land was no longer ‘good’ but ‘bad.’ In fact, everything was bad. This type of binary thinking that looks at the world only through the lens of a puzzle to be solved rather than a mystery to be experienced will naturally lead to the conclusion that לא נוכל לעלות (we cannot go up to this land).

Living in the land of Israel at every stage of our national history has required us to live with an acquired sense of ambivalence. We must look at the land both in the mode of לרגל and לתור. We must be aware of its weaknesses and the practical implications of being surrounded by enemies, both internal and external. But equally, we must fall in love with the land and its inhabitants every day anew. We must nurture our curiosity, romantically walk the streets our ancestors walked, and be amazed at the resilience and growth of a nation that arose from the ashes to construct this old-new land once again. This dialectical mindset requires a profound maturity that demands we live between two, sometimes contradictory, realities and embrace them both. For that is the secret to our survival here in Eretz Yisrael, and without it, we will be destined to remain in the wilderness.

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