From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
“We cannot ascend.”
Some conclusions are more obvious to come to than others. Sometimes the most obvious conclusion isn’t necessarily correct. Drawing our own conclusions can often be a risky business.
Take the case in this week’s parashah. The spies sent by Moses return from their reconnaissance mission of the Promised Land with a frightening report about the fierce warrior nations of Canaan. The Jewish People are dejected and frightened; they even weep at the thought of their impending invasion, convinced it can only be a suicidal mission impossible. The Al‑mighty is angered, the people are punished for their lack of faith in His promise, and the spies go down in history as the villains in the story.
But why? What, in fact, was their sin? Moses asked for a report of the land. They came back and reported exactly what they had seen. They told no lies. The land was formidable. The inhabitants were huge and powerful. The fruits were extraordinarily large. They even brought back samples to prove it. So if it was all true, why were they punished?
The answer lies not in the report but in their conclusion. The facts as the spies presented them were entirely accurate. The sin was their conclusion, “Lo nuchal la’alot—We cannot ascend to that people for it is too strong for us.” Moses had sent them on a fact-finding mission. Their job was to bring back information. Nobody asked them for their personal opinions. The whole point of their mission was to gather the data necessary for the Israelites to find the best way of conquering the land. That it was going to happen was a given. G‑d had promised them the land, told them of its natural beauty, and assured them of success. The same G‑d who just miraculously delivered you from Egypt, the mightiest superpower on earth, who split the sea for you and revealed Himself in all His glory to you at Sinai, has now said that the Promised Land is there waiting for you. And after all He has done for you, you turn around and publicly doubt His power to help you succeed. This is not only a mistake in judgment. This is shameful, sinful, and faithless. The spies’ report was correct, but their conclusion was disastrous.
A high-school teacher once decided to demonstrate to his class the dangers of alcohol abuse. So he conducted an experiment. He took one glass of water and one glass of whiskey. He then took a little worm and dropped it in the glass of water. The worm had a nice little swim in the glass and then the teacher removed the worm unharmed. He then dropped the worm into the glass of whiskey. In no time at all, the worm was dead. He then turned to the class and asked them what the experiment proved. Whereupon one wise guy at the back piped up and said, “Sir, it proves conclusively that if you drink enough whiskey you will never suffer from worms!”
The facts are there for all of us to see. The question is how to interpret them. If we have a preconceived position and then manipulate the data to draw conclusions that suit us, we may come off clever at first, but in the end we may well go the way of the spies. Without faith, even the most accurate information can lead to the wrong conclusion. v
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.