May 31, 2013: The Error of Misperception (Shelach Lecha)

We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have been in their eyes as well. (Numbers 13:33) The Holy, Blessed One said: I’ll grant them that they looked like grasshoppers in their own eyes, but who’s to say that you can’t look like angels in the eyes of others?... In this world, because they sent out agents of flesh and blood, it was decreed that they wouldn’t enter the Land, but in the world that is coming: ‘I am sending My angel to you who will clear the way, and all of a sudden, you will come into My temple.’ (Malachi 3:1) — Bemidbar Rabbah 16:11

What grievous transgression did the Israelites commit that they were banned from entering the Promised Land? The Torah relates the divine decree in this week’s portion: “for as many days as you spied out the land, forty days, that’s how long you will bear the consequences, forty years, one year for each day.” (Numbers 14:32, 34) The spies had returned from the Land with an ill report: “the land is full of men of enormous size! We saw Anakites there. We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have been in their eyes as well. We cannot rise up against them, because they are much stronger than we.” (Numbers 13:31-33) (To this day, the word for “gigantic” in modern Hebrew is anaki.)

The sin of the spies was the error of misperception. “We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have been in their eyes as well.” A particularly insightful Midrash expounds: “The Holy, Blessed One said: I’ll grant them that they looked like grasshoppers in their own eyes, but who’s to say that you can’t look like angels in the eyes of others?” (Bemidbar Rabbah 16:11) I always thought of the occupation of the Land of Canaan as a tale of conquest, but the Midrash suggests a different idea: maybe the Israelites were meant to enter the land not as conquerors but as angels, agents of peace, like the malach’ei ha-shareit that we greet on Shabbat evening. The Midrash concludes: “in this world, because they sent out agents of flesh and blood (meaning the spies), it was decreed that they wouldn’t enter the Land, but in the world that is coming—quoting the Prophet Malachi: ‘I am sending My angel to you who will clear the way, and all of a sudden, you will come into My temple.’ (Malachi 3:1)” The grammatical shift from third person to second person is dramatic and purposeful: “they looked like grasshoppers in their own eyes, but you could look like angels in the eyes of others; they couldn’t enter the land, but you will come into God’s temple.” Thus, we realize that the Midrash is not merely commenting on the behavior the spies but directing its admonishment squarely at us.

Now we can elaborate upon the spies’ grievous transgression: they viewed the future with doubt, they treated others with suspicion, and they confronted the world with hostility. Whenever people prejudge each other as inimical, they are bound to worry about who is stronger and who is weaker, who wins and who loses. Their punishment is self-imposed. “One year for every day” accords well with the so-called “negativity bias,” whereby it takes twenty (forty?) positive, constructive interactions to make up for one hurtful act against another.

We need not follow the example of the spies. We can choose to look forward to the future, to meet others in good faith, and to greet the world with hope. We can decide to be angels to each other, that is, messengers of encouragement and comfort, “clearing the way” for mutual recognition and empathy. It is always possible to connect with another, because we all share every human emotion in some measure.

At a recent concert entitled “every day is Shabbos” performed by Nava Tehilah, the Renewal group from Jerusalem, the lead singer interpreted heichalo, “God’s temple,” as a metaphor for the innermost point inside each of us that is always connected to the Divine. If so, then our Midrash’s assertion: “all of a sudden, you will come into God’s temple,” points to the recognition of the “the greater, nobler potential of our inner nature.” (Rabbi Ron Aigen, Hadeish Yameinu, p. 163) My experience is that such shifts in perception can occur instantaneously at any moment—if we are open and attentive to them. After all, the Midrash says: “in the world that is coming,” and the world is always coming into being.

The story of the spies is tightly interwoven with the law of the tzitzit. Concerning the four-cornered fringed prayer shawl, the Torah commands: “u-r’item oto, you shall see it… velo taturu, and you shall not go astray after your own urges” (Numbers 15:39) –echoing the exact words that introduce the immediately preceding narrative: “Moses sent [the spies] latur, to spy out the land… And he said to them: [go and] see, u-r’item, what kind of land it is.” (Numbers 13:17-18) The text’s precise terminology proves that the juxtaposition of the account of the spies and the commandment for the tzitzit is no coincidence. Velo taturu: we are not to “spy out;” instead, u’ritem oto: we are commanded to “see.” What is the difference between “spying” and “seeing?” It is a difference of perception—how we encounter the people and circumstances in our lives—either with cynicism and distrust, or with optimism and openmindedness.

When you come right down to it, Jewish religious practice in general affords not rose-colored glasses (because it does not shield us from suffering) but something more valuable—an inexhaustible reservoir of spiritual energy that enables us to wake up and face life all over again. In other words, the act of putting on tzitzit when we get out of bed is a spirited salutation: “Good morning, World! I greet you with joy and hope. Today, I will meet each person as a messenger of peace, I will treat conflict as an opportunity to clear the way for greater understanding, and I will celebrate moments of connection and beauty. Today, I choose to see the good.” May we bless each new day with such joyous intention.