Friday, May 31, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Shelakh L’kha 5773–They Really Might Be Giants (Redux 5764)

While I’m away at the annual Hava Nashira Jewish Songleaders conference at the beautiful Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin I hope you’ll forgive this retread musing from 2004.

Random Musing Before Shabbat

Shelakh L’kha 5764–They Really Might Be Giants

Many of you reading this musing know me, some of you I have never met in person. For those who don't know, I am at the extreme end of the male height curve for someone who otherwise has no abnormal pathology affecting his height, i.e., I am "normal short." No hormonal deficiencies, no glandular problems, no bone-related issues, no dwarfism, etc. I am four foot ten inches in stature.

So, at any given time, my view of the world is always at an upward angle. Fortunately, for myself, I have also been able to turn this into an (if you'll excuse the pun) "uplifting" view of the world.

I don't really know what the scouts encountered in their reconnoiter of Canaan. (And they were, indeed, scouts or explorers. Later, as described in the haftarah, Joshua sent spies. Moses sent scouts. And there is a difference.) The Torah doesn't really tell us what they saw and encountered. I've always found that a rather interesting omission. It leaves us dependent on the reports of the scouts. And, as we know, reasonable people can certainly disagree on what they saw and encountered in the same situation. And their own life experiences will certainly contribute to their view of those encounters.

Over the years of my life, I have become somewhat desensitized (or perhaps simply accepting) of the barriers that my height causes me to encounter in everyday life. I instinctively look up when in a crowd. I know that I will often have to do something to make sure the counterperson at the deli or bakery will notice me waiting. I move aside products on the bottom shelf at the grocery store so I can use the step to help me reach something on the top shelf without complaining, and I don't feel any shame at simply asking a fellow shopper to help me out with an item that's beyond my reach. I keep stepstools nearby at home and at work. And, somewhat metaphorically, I don't see the rest of the people around me as giants (except for those who truly are of unusually tall stature. My brain seems to have learned to judge the height of others while compensating for the upward perspective!) Yet I've had almost 50 years to work this all out.

The Israelite scouts had only experienced freedom from oppression for a very short time. It's not at all surprising that they would view those dwelling in Canaan as giants (whether meant metaphorically or literally.) So, as a test of faith, perhaps we do have to question its fairness.

I find it odd that I would even postulate such an idea. I have generally been supportive of the idea that the Israelites were stubborn, weak-willed and lacking in faith, despite the great miracles they had lived through and observed. G"d and Moses are right to wonder how the people can live through these miraculous acts of G"d and still lack faith (though even Moses himself demonstrates it and loses his chance to enter the promised land.) I, myself, scratch my head wondering how the Israelites can be so agnostic after experiencing what they have experienced.

The outcome of this scouting expedition was a foregone conclusion, given the track record of the Israelites, and given that they had only known freedom, and had only been experiencing G"d's miracles for a relatively short time span. That Caleb (and perhaps Joshua) experienced things a little differently only goes to show that in every group there are those more trusting, more positive, more willing to believe and have faith. Yet still, even in our own time, they are a minority, and sometimes, all too rare.

I say "perhaps Joshua" because the Torah is a little less clear on just how strong Joshua's faith was at this point. It was Caleb who spoke up first, and Joshua only spoke up later, and then only together with Caleb, and not on his own. Perhaps Joshua needed to see the example of Caleb's faith before he was willing to step out on that particular limb? And there is a significant difference between Caleb's words, and the joint declaration of Caleb and Joshua. Caleb simply says "hey, we can do this." When Joshua and Caleb speak together some verses later, they say "IF G"d is pleased with us, then we will succeed.

Caleb's initial declaration is assuredly one of faith. While the Torah tells us that the other scouts went about spreading bad (evil? false?) reports, Caleb never publicly contradicts the reports of what was actually seen. He simply insists that because G"d is with the Israelites, they will succeed. And it wasn't until after Caleb made his statement of faith that the other scouts upped the ante by elaborating on their report and adding to it the idea that there were giants in the land. Clearly they were fearful of the power of Caleb's exhortation to the people that they would believe that mere faith in G"d would see them through. "Old tapes" were playing in their heads. They couldn't see it the way Caleb (and possibly Joshua) did. Their life experiences hadn't prepared them for it.

Which, inevitably, leads us back to someplace I really hate going, and that's the puppet master G"d. As some sages have taught us, G"d knew the people weren't ready for the promised land, and so this whole elaborate sham was concocted to drive the point home. It also provided an opportunity to help Joshua develop a stronger sense of faith in G"d, in preparation for his future role as leader of the people.

Perhaps this helps explain why, prior to this point in the text, there's no suggestion that anyone wants to go out and scout the land of Canaan, and thus why it is G"d who says to Moses, "Shelakh l'kha," send forth-for yourself (i.e., for your own sake, your own edification) men to scout the land. The Torah doesn't say "some among the Israelites were worried," or "Even Moses, in his great faith, was uncertain, and wanted to be sure that the people could successfully move into Canaan." I say "prior to this point in the text" because, in Deuteronomy 1:22, Moses says that the people came to him and asked that the land be reconnoitered. Now, we can chalk this up to the fact that the Torah is not seen as being in chronological order, and so we can't really discuss what takes place in Shelakh-L'kha without also taking into account these verses near the beginning of D'varim.

Or perhaps we can attribute this to Moses' often "selective" memory (as when he blames the people and not himself for the rock-striking incident.) Moses "conveniently" forgets that it was G"d's idea to send scouts. Or perhaps he "deliberately" forgets, not wanting to give the people any opportunity to see G"d as the manipulator that Moses knows G"d to be. And make no mistake about it, Moses clearly knows that G"d is a manipulator, and that G"d can be manipulated. Moses himself appeals to G"d's vanity and ego later in Shelakh-L'kha in convincing G"d to not destroy the people for their lack of faith, as a matter of "saving face." "What will the Egyptians and others think of you," he asks G"d, "if you bring this people out from Egypt only to destroy them in the wilderness? That you could not accomplish the task you, G"d, had set for yourself. How's that gonna look?" And better yet, G"d buys it hook, line, and sinker. Or so Moses thinks.

So which is it? Did G"d plan the whole thing out knowing this was the only way to show the people they weren't ready for the promised land, or do we see this as G"d learning yet another lesson from the school of "this is what happens when you give your creations free will?" Did the scouts really encounter giants, fortified cities and have a real sense of the difficulties of moving into Canaan, even with G"d's help? The scouts surely saw that the land was indeed as described--flowing with milk and honey. They surely desired to live there (or at least saw it as a desirable place to live.) Was their lack of faith in G"d merely a result of the newness of their experience of freedom?

I have my opinions on these questions (though I'll readily admit they can and do change with each reading of the text.) And part of what goes into my readings of these texts is my own experience. That includes my shortness, but it also includes how I have learned to deal with it over the years of my life.

What are the lenses through which you see life, and through which you read the text, and how do they shape your reading? Spend some time this Shabbat finding out. And always remember that to someone, if not you, those giants might be very real. Adding that to the mix of what shapes your reading can have a profound influence on it. And that is why studying with others, or with a partner, is so important. You can't see the world through my eyes, at my 4'-10" height. Yet perhaps my sharing with you what things look like from down here might help influence how you see things from "up there." And, ultimately, it is my hope and prayer that in so doing, no one will ever be "looking down" at another. Metaphorically, that is.

Shabbat shalom,

©2004 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Sh'lakh-L'kha 5772- Cover Up (Redux and Revised 5761)
Sh'lakh-L'kha 5771 - Ignorantia Juris Non Excusat
Shelakh L'kha 5769 - One Law
Sh'lakh-L'kha 5767-Cover Up II - G"d's Scarlet Letter?
Sh'lakh L'kha 5766 - Another Missed Opportunity?
Shelakh Lekha 5764-They Might Really Be Giants
Shelakh-Lekha 5762-Minority Report
Shelakh-Lekha 5761-Cover Up?
Shelakh Lekha 5760 and 5765-Anamnesis
Shelakh-Lekha 5759-Do You Spy What I Spy?


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