Monday, June 8, 2009

Scouting or spying, trust or distrust

The parshat hashavua\פרשת השבוע "Shelach lecha\שלח לך" or the coming weekly reading portion "Send (men to scout the Land of Canaan)" accounts one of the most famous episodes of the TaNaKH about the spies and includes essential Jewish Mitzvot-מצות/Commandments in the Book of Bamidbar-במדבר/Numbers 13:1-15:41.

It is time to march into the Land of the Avot-אבות/Ancestors. Moses decides to assign twelve men from the ancestral tribes to scout the land = latur et-eretz Kena'an\לתור את הארץ כנען (Num. 13:17), have a real look at the country, the inhabitants, a full spying survey with much discretion and know-how. At this point, this is a typical and very proficient activity of Israel over the world. Moses did not send the men the same way we have a pending problem with Jonathan Pollard. He was not on a "tour". In Hebrew, "tur\תור" means "to spy", still in a way that implies to walk, go around, be awake and on alert, go on foot (regel/leg - meragel\רגל-מרגל = spy in Modern Hebrew). "You have espied the Land and found fault with God's Tent", says Talmud Shebuot 47b, echoing Numbers Rabba 16, 20: "You have espied the faults of the Land of Israel".

A good spy, for the Talmud, is Aaron: "The great spy (Aaron) died who had espied for them the road of life" (Yoma 1:38b). The Israelite spy is a man of God who is accomplishing a sort of divine mitzvah for the benefit of the whole community of Israel. In this view, our spies should not be corrupt... totally under self-control... not utter any slander... of rumors, and we should not hear any blah-blah about them in return. The perfect shomer-שומר/guardian of the integrity and rigor is also the model of the bney chorin-בני חורין/ free men (and women). Numerous names come then to our minds, especially of those people who, in terrible days when Jews were persecuted and for the sake of the State of Israel, offered their lives with courage and silence. Israelis have developed amazing and witty tricks to confound the enemies. We love thrillers, but curiously the good old-fashioned Israeli spies are more of the Lamed-Vavnikim sort (the 36 unknown tzaddikim-צדיקים/righteous
that save the world) than full-tanned oriental green-eyed guys and girls jumping from beds to couches with guns, poisoning pills, killing kisses, pocket bombs and Holy Land bullets. Everybody knows the joke of a man who answers – in the middle of a dark night in Tel Aviv – that he is Yaakov the violinist, but that Yaakov the spy lives on the fourth floor, up there…

Moses sent the twelve men and they had a wonderful tour. They brought gorgeous fruits, clusters of grapes and pomegranates after forty days of scouting. The report was disparate. Exceptional landscapes and country, but the inhabitants seemed a bit bizarre. How difficult to recognize the people after an absence of 400 years! Land of milk and honey, but the inhabitants are powerful; their cities are fortified and terribly large. This is dangerous, reported ten of the men who saw the Amakelites and the mighty Hittites. They got scared. Worse than everything: they even met with very tall men, something like 100 XXXL size guys, the Nephilim\נפילים, that had disappeared since Gen. 6:4. There, they were looking at the Sons of the Covenant like grasshoppers, and the “spies” did have the courage to look back. These ten also spread some rumors that the country they saw devours the inhabitants and they successfully slandered around so that the Israelites wanted to return to good old Egypt.

Slander is called to disappear by nature, said the Sages. But the reaction of these “reporters” is exactly the same as what we hear about our Israeli society and the country at the present. We all have our dreamy Nephilim\נפילים, extra sized ghosts. We look at each other so often like grasshoppers or chimpanzees in a zoo. And the land is wonderful but no oil, only honey and milk fruits and grapes, olives. Indeed we are fortified. Everybody is even fortified here. and always better or more threatening than in Egypt. When we find some family connection from America to Israel, we may discover we have a “rich” uncle in some Rehov Ben Yehudah, who owns a tiny falafel or pizza corner. But what a location! Well, this week, we should maybe pray for our spies… and all the honest spies because the problem is that they are very buddy-buddy and interconnected and can easily be spoiled. On the other hand, it is really difficult to account the truth and keep balanced. Caleb and Joshua exposed what they had seen and that it was possible to conquer the land. They said “Do not fear the people of the country for they are our “lachmenu =bread=food (prey)”. “Milchamah\מלחמה = war” in Hebrew does mean that we are no more in a situation of rather natural hospitality in the tribal culture. We doubt, suspect, attack or flee. “Mi’lchamah\מלחמה = it is no more possible to share the same meal/food/bread, which induces a state of war, a conflict”. This is very significant in spiritual life and also as regards the Christian bread sharing rooted in the Kiddush partaking of bread. Caleb and Joshua underscored that the Israelites should not rebel against God.

Now, “kibush\כבוש, conquest” shows more than the way we even use the word at the present. In the case of the Israelites – again in revolt against God and Moses and willing to return to Egypt – we must consider something else. They got out of the womb of some foreign “fostering” country, i.e. Egypt, symbolically a “house of slavery”. Let’s say that the wilderness, in the Sinai, is a place of dizziness, tests, wandering and giving of the Torah. It is time for the Israelites to behave as grownups and face the conquest of their own identity, the fulfillment of their being. They cry exactly as spoiled children do. And the rumors just match with their fears: why getting ahead to the Land of Canaan? True, the same question is pending in the present as regards the apparently unexpected renewal of a Jewish State and of the Arab nation, Semitic heritage in the region.

The present reading portion obliges us to consider how we behave in terms of righteousness or deep injustice. When Caleb and Joshua witness that the kibush, conquest is possible, how can we show today that the Israelites do not rebel against God? In our time, it is more questionable. The real interrogation is how to get to a target that does not harm but will allow building actions. No unjust expropriations but a progressive and comprehensive “Semitization” of the Israeli society in the Middle-East.

Indeed, the false rumors conveyed by the ten men, their lies and betrayal of Mose’s mission are constant stuff. We are reluctant to grow, to become adults. Adulthood is so frightening for some Jews because of the monstrous experience of history. This is why – even it sounds like some kind of a vitz-וויץ /joke – good scouting eyes and brains allow growing spiritually. No way to compare with some servile traitors conveying sugary gossiping reports to some potentates. The point is to be found in the accomplishment of the first commandment given to all beings: “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it “vekhivshua\וכבשה””(Bereishit 1:28). We must be careful not to damage human souls and this is quite a challenging problem for our society. “Kibush\כבוש” is also the means of subduing evil, pride an will of useless conquest, preventing overbearing what is proper to others” , states Pessikta Zutrathi 197a (Buber Ed.). On the other hand, reaching out to our own self-control allows enhancing oneself and sometimes a society.

Thus, it makes sense that the Jewish tradition proposes the systematical reading of the Pirkey Avot-פרקי אבות – Sayings of the Fathers, a portion of the Talmud Tractate Nezikin\נזיקין (Damages) from Pesach to Shavuot, usually till Rosh Hashanah in most congregations today. The book is included in most Shabbat prayer-books and is composed of five chapters plus one (Kinyan Torah\קנין תורה=acquisition of the Torah) brought from a minor Tractate “Kallah\כלה”. As the Book of Job or Lamentations, the Sayings of the Fathers (Avoth\אבות according to Mishnaic Hebrew) is one of the best-sellers and most read books in the world. It is very ethical, down-to-earth and spiritual, crude and full of wisdom and thus can bring some reflection, insights and responses to all humans in search of who they are.

This also deals with our weekly reading portion. The “spies or scouts” were to examine with insightful and ethical eyes the realm of the country. Interestingly, at the end of the reading, God gives the commandment to hold the tzitzit-ציצית / fringes at each corner of the garments with a blue cord (techelet), “to look at it, observe them so that you don’t follow your heart and eyes /velo tituru (scout astray, make the wrong tour) acharei levavchem veacharei eyneichem(in lustful urges)\אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם” (Bamidbar 15:39-40). The commandment to look and observe the tzitzit in order to achieve and accomplish all the Mitzvot held in hand and upon our eyes is basic and extant for every Jew. They introduce to a daily viewing and consideration of how to behave with decency and dignity. It is not a problem of “derech haaretz\דרך הארץ = morals” that obliges every soul to make healthy use of their brains and will. In the reading portion, it is repeatedly mentioned that “if something was done unwittingly = le/bishgagah -ל-בשגגה”, there were some provision to be observed. This traces back to the wondrous prayer of Yom Kippur: “Forgive us, cleanse us, atone us, all the House of Israel as the inhabitant who resides in her midst (leger hagar betocham\לגר הגר בתוכם) / ki kol ha’am bishgagah\כי כל העם בשגגה (because all the nation, people, community) ha s erred unwittingly. The word is linked to “meshugah\משוגע – insane, fool, foolish” that became Slang Yinglish “shmeggegeh\שמגעגע” (just sounds so lovely and exact!). We could say “weird, weirdo, spaced out without any drugs except our ego’s pressure”.

The word “mussar\מוסר” is usually considered as the correct word for “ethics”, or authentic tradition of good behavior. But the commandment to look at the tzitzit is not moral, not ethical. Who can know what is inside of a soul? Morals or ethics suggest attitudes or pave the way to measure how we dare or not behave toward ourselves and the others. The twelve men were called to more: to see and not to get astray from a path that they might consider dangerous. Our lives can be imperiled by many events or situations. We can then choose to respond like Caleb and Joshua, by taking over the truth and face it. In that view, the Mitzvot are not moral, ethical, judgmental, pleasing. They show our connection with God and how we accept him. Moses was very humble and thus could not enter the Land taking upon him the lack of faith of the Israelites.

There is more: we are scouted by God. God scans our hearts and souls, our projects and desires. When He does this, He does not act with reluctance. Indeed, both the psalm (6:4 - 90:13; Math. 17:17-Mark 9:19;Luke 9:41) and Jesus use the same expression: "Until when = ad matai\עד מתי?" Until when God has to tolerate and support us? God does not spy us because He knows and this is also the point that is an exceptional sign of His Divine Providence and Protection as Shechinah. Then, as scouted witness, we have also the task to describe the reality as it is and not to refuse, deny or change it according to our desires.

The community of Israel is going through a long-term and lasting period of turbulence. It does not mean that israeli society is deeply imperiled, even by the neighboring dybbukim-devils or haunting ghosts. We have to be watchers, but never lose common sense and wisdom. I already wrote many times that a real Israeli born in the country or in Eretz via the authenticity of the Mitzvot knows in-depths that Israel is not really endangered. The real danger comes from us, from Israeli society and the repeated mistakes, carried over ages. The psalms teach never to trust the mighty, but only to have confidence in the Lord. This has been pathetic throughout Jewish history. It led to constant crawling attitudes of temporary and not permanent advisers or managers. Ben Gurion declared that we could not trust the Nations. This has to be correctly understood and taken into account. It does not mean we have to suspect, just be on alert. Golda Meir had confidence in the Soviet comrade just before the Independence day: instead she got the corpses of those who could tremendously be useful in this period of surviving battle.

On the other hand, it does mean we should not learn to appreciate those who live in our generation; we live with them and they live with us. Abraham was a wandering/fugitive Aramean (Parshat Tavo) which is mentioned at Rosh HaShanah and should be present to the conscience of every Jew (and by ricochet to every Christian); Abraham could not allow himself the spit and mock the people he was hosting as a foreign settler under his tent at the heat of the day, welcoming them and being in a contact of hospitality with them. This extends to the reality of a true Shabbat and thus concerns the whole of the Klal Israel. Hillel's word echo the obligation to respect those who dwell with us and not systematically contest their existence.

Finally, Judaism is based on prophecy, on the unveiling of actions and times. The burden of history has often affected such a vision of history built on the power of the living Word. In that sense, we are to be able to positively scout our lives and our gift to be alive.

We just celebrate the Feast of the Pentecost and the Spreading, Giving of the Holy Spirit. On the second Sunday after Pentecost, the Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates the local Saints. Interestingly, in the 4th century, seemingly in the Celtic Roman Catholic Church of the West, the Church of Rome decided to recall the Saints on November 1st and then All the Souls (Departed) that were defunct (had accomplished their officium/task) on the following day, showing a sort of hope in winter time. The Orthodox Church celebrates the Saints as those who lived in the Pentecostal breathing-in of the Spirit. Firstly, all the Saints as last week and now the local Saints. Thus, the Palestinian Saints track back to the Avot, the ancestors and all the prophets of the Bible. From the time before Abraham till the cave of Machpelah\מכפלה, the Land of Canaan and Eretz Israel, each territory of the ancestral tribes and Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Arabia till so far away… God-seekers scout souls and soil and teach how to share wittingly.

God is the true scout, touring inside of our souls during our days and nights and weighing our lives by the yardstick of trust and distrust and victory over life steeple-chase.

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