Sermon for Shlach Lecha 5779
June 28, 2019
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
In competitive rowing there are nine people in the boat, including the captain of the shell, who is called a coxswain or cox.
The story goes that the Chabad House at Oxford challenged the Oxford University oarsmen to a rowing contest, but quickly discovered that the Oxford crew was twice as fast as they were. So the Lubavitch captain sent a spy across to Oxford to find out why and how. A few hours later the spy returned. “Nuh,” said the Chabad captain, “tell us everything.”
“Well,” said the spy, “They do everything the other way round to us.”
“Explain,” demanded the captain.
“It's simple,” said the spy, “They've got eight men rowing and one man shouting!”
This little joke has relevance for this week’s Torah portion of Shelach Lecha, for two reasons. First, the need for more people to row, and fewer to shout, is always important in Jewish circles. But secondly, and more importantly, the question of what makes for a good spy and just where you find the professional qualities necessary for doing espionage work are central to our parshah and can teach us important things about ourselves and our own quest for meaning.
I’m sure that there are all kinds of tests available today for determining who makes a good subject for intelligence work and who just can’t pull it off. In spite of the oft-repeated slander that the definition of an oxymoron is “military intelligence,” both the armed services and the civilian agencies entrusted with espionage have lots of ways of figuring out who is good at this stuff and who isn’t.
In fact, this process goes back a very long way. There are actually a series of spy stories in the Bible, and there are different ways used to determine the best kind of person to employ in this work. But when you are trying this spying business out for the first time you are liable to make a few mistakes. And so it seems in our portion of Shlach Lecha this week.
The commandment given at the start of Shlach Lecha is purely practical. God commands Moses to send forth men to scout out the land of Canaan and see if it is suitable for the Israelites to invade and occupy. Each tribe is to be represented by one man, ish echad, and each of these is to be a prince of the people, a nasi. That creates a scout group of 12 men. Well, let’s be honest; these are not scouts at all, but in the classic use of the term they are spies. A spying pack of 12 guys is now sent off, with some ceremony, to explore the land soon to be known as Israel.
I have always wondered about God’s thinking, and the methods God commands Moses to employ in our Torah portion. What is called for here is a close scouting of an alien and enemy-filled land, a land flowing with milk and honey but also full of Canaanite tribes, towns and armies. Who would be best suited to such a mission?
What do you think of when you picture a spy? If your beau ideal of a spy is James Bond or Mata Hari, glamorous, dramatic types, then this is the group for you. Twelve dashing young men, leaders of their people, princes of the blood, a virtual Rat Pack of glamorous types, an Ocean’s 12 of the best and brightest. These men—all men, naturally, in those days—are identified by name and reputation. The most famous of them, Hosea, is actually Moses’ top aid. The others come from illustrious families and hold high office. To add to the drama of the coming mission, Moses even changes the name of their most prominent member, Hosea, to Joshua. Name changes always signify something portentous in the Torah. This is no exception; his new name means, “God will save.”
These illustrious young gentlemen are no doubt feeling pretty full of themselves for having been selected for this important mission. It’s all very exciting. What an opportunity! How thrilling!
And then Moses gives instructions which are practical and thorough. “Go up and see the Negev Desert and the mountains, see what kind of country it is; Are the people strong or weak, few or many? Is the country they live in good or bad, are the cities open or fortified with walls? Is the land productive and rich, or is it barren and thin? Be sure to bring back some of its fruit.”
In other words, go and spy it all out, see if it is productive, and see if we can capture it. And this band of wealthy brothers sets off.
Perhaps, in retrospect, this wasn’t the ideal way to go about this task. Let’s see, we are trying to find out the truth about the country we are exploring, to ascertain its military strength, to see what it’s really like. And so, under God’s instruction, we send out one more than a football team of prep-school guys from good colleges with titles and fancy clothes and instruct them to bring back souvenirs to boot. I’m sure none of the Canaanites noticed that group…
It’s rather like sending a pack of US Senators to secretly spy out an alien land. Actually, we do exactly that when we send those fact-finding missions overseas, those senatorial junkets that our elected leaders are so fond of going on. Those kinds of missions do find out facts, but the facts they tend to find out are just exactly the facts that the people of the land want them to find out.
So it proves with these m’raglim, these spies. They learn that the land is good and beautiful and productive—how could they miss that?—but they also manage to be convinced that the diverse Canaanite tribes, small enclaves of clans really, are some sort of giant military nation-states filled with mighty monsters and warriors. “We should just leave them be,” these princes of the people conclude; they are too many and too mighty for us!
The fascinating part of all this is the question of just why God chose to use the people who are designated as nasi, “raised up”, the high and mighty, for intelligence work. Because if you really want to find out just how a society works, and where the bodies are buried, the right way to do it is probably not to send an ostentatious group of fancy-pants officials to troupe about stealing grapes and gaping at the residents en masse. No, the right way to spy out a land is by sending an anonymous looking guy or two to wander around looking unimportant, talking to the locals at bars and brothels, and finding out just what the people really are all about.
In fact, that’s exactly what Joshua himself does a generation later in the Haftarah that we will chant tomorrow. The two spies Joshua chooses aren’t even named in the Bible, and instead of going off as a kind of expeditionary force they slip unannounced into the major city of their enemies and go directly to the house of Rahab the harlot. That’s how you find out the real facts about the situation.
Armies are always discovering this in wartime, by the way. Back in the American Civil War the Union had a genuinely terrible time with its intelligence work for most of the war. They kept sending out tall, handsome, well-educated, nicely groomed, sophisticated young men to scout the land, men like the sons of admirals and generals and Senators – one of them, Ulrich Dahglren, was the darling of Washington society and was said to have manners as “soft as a cat’s”—and the southerners kept catching them and hanging them. After a few years of this they finally caught on, and by the later stages of the war they were sending out undersized, anonymous, scrawny little cavalrymen who brought back all kinds of secrets.
My good friend Harold Bongarten, of blessed memory, did this kind of work during World War II, slipping behind German lines and pretending to be a returning German soldier wandering around France. Harold was not tall or dramatic looking, had an easy smile and a kind manner, and Harold was easy to underestimate, which he counted on and exploited with great charm. He spoke German fluently, and he sent back a series of reports that helped the Allies know whom to trust and whom to arrest in each town as they recaptured it. And then he quietly and anonymously moved on ahead of the armies to the next town. And he was never caught.
So why is this relevant in a religious sense?
You see, the lessons of this story of the spies is complex and rich. But surely one lesson is about how we must approach things ourselves as Jews. For the original m’raglim came to their mission with pride and a certain sense of arrogance. They were the princes of the people, after all. They had high standing and knew the best way to do things. And, of course, they failed miserably.
We modern, sophisticated, educated adults come to our mission as Jews in a rather similar way. We, too, consider ourselves to be pretty important. We know all sorts of things, and we have achievements in the world that testify to our accomplishments and abilities. We have self-pride and confidence. If we seek to find God and holiness from this perspective, we, too, will fail.
For it is not out of confidence or arrogance that we must approach the Divine; it is out of humility and simplicity. What God needs is not the pedigrees of the elite, but the hearts of the humble. What Judaism requires is not the stature of the elect but the open intensity of the ordinary woman and man. What allows us to reach towards heaven and connect with God is the ability to come to terms with our own limits, our humanity, our humility. To drop pretenses, and approach God without our badges of rank or self-importance.
We must approach God, our own promised land, as simple human beings. And if we can do that, then the secret fastness of the divine spirit may be revealed and opened to us. And then our own mission, as Jews, will be fulfilled for our good, and everyone’s good.
May this become our will, and thus our blessing. Ken Yehi Ratson.