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Shlech Lecha: The Mystery of the Land

Updated: Jul 30, 2023


If Bereshit is a book about the road to character of the individual and the family, Bamidbar is a book about the road to growth of the nation.

The nation progress from moans and cries to speech and thoughtful eloquence, from looking back to looking forward, from despair to hope. From seeing themselves as grasshoppers to seeing themselves as fighters ready to enter a land and fight for their national destiny. But every transformation is paved with loss and pain.

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

The story of the spies is a story about failure. Failure of the princes of the tribes whose low self-worth colours their report of a good land. Failure of the people who hear a report and are not mature enough to ask important questions about its veracity and instead resort to a temper tantrum laced with tears and sulking in their rooms – read tents. Failure of a leader whose unwavering belief in the capacity of a quick and painless transformation of 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 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 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 לתורwhich is something more akin to ‘touring’ or being a tourist. One is about fact finding in order to win a battle. The other is about impression of a land. One is objective, the other subjective. One is pragmatic the other fanciful and romantic. One asks you to look for the weaknesses the other for the strengths.

Ian Leslie in a book called Curious describes two ways we ask questions about the world: Puzzles and mysteries. The first is a like a puzzle that needs to be solved it commands our curiosity until it has been deciphered. A mystery, by contrast, never stops inviting enquiry. 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 in which we think about problems and questions that we are faced with. 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 that will occupy and entertain us long after the puzzle is solved.”

I want to suggest that the two words used by the Torah and Moshe in the account of the spies can be categorised as a puzzle and a mystery. When the people are told to לרגל – the spy the land, the demand is to ask questions as we do in a puzzle that demand 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 the strengths and weaknesses and reports it as it is.

However the word לתור insinuates a very different kind of mission. I would suggest that it demands a perspective that addresses the mystery rather than the puzzle. That 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. That would not provide final answers or an objective account but instead engender a sense of awe and wonder. The kind of sentiment one needs as they journey to undiscovered territory.

Maybe the inability on the part of the spies and the people to differentiate between these two missions and to detect the nuanced difference between them meant they were indeed 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 mandates nuances, subjective interpretation that in many cases cultivates meaning. When to apply the certainty of answers and rules that are gool oriented and when to engage in curiosity, exploration, uncertain turns and pursuits of the journey rather than the destination. 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 the interpretive pursuit they ultimately fail. When they went to a land that was one of milk, honey and colossal fruit but also giants and arch enemies they simply resort 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 spiralled into cognitive distortion. The land was no longer ‘good’ but ‘bad’. In fact, everything was bad. And 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 can not 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. To know that 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, it requires us to fall in love with the land and its inhabitants every day anew. To nurture our curiosity, to romantically walk the streets our ancestors walked, and to 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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