Seeing What You Want to See
Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender
Twelve representatives were elected for an espionage mission, one from every tribe. Each one of them was a highly valued leadership personality in his group and was expected to fulfill the mission responsibly and successfully.
Their job was to provide an objective assessment of what they observed in the Promised Land, a land the Jewish nation stood at the cusp of entering to conquer and take up residence in. As they prepared for the journey, Moshe (Moses) provided them with detailed instructions:
“’See the Land – how is it? – and the people that dwells in it – is it strong or weak?’” (In other words, assess the quality of the inhabitants and their military capacity.) Is it few or numerous? (What is the number of inhabitants?) And how is the Land in which it dwells – is it good or is it bad? (Assess the quality of the land.) And how are the cities in which it dwells – are they open or are they fortified? (Are they prepared for war?) And how is the land – is it fertile or is it lean? Are there trees in it or not? (What is the quality of the produce?) You shall strengthen yourselves and take from the fruit of the Land.’” (Numbers-Bamidbar 13:18-20)
The spies arrived in Israel, made their assessments, and drew conclusions.
Tremendous upheaval took place in Israel at that time. In order to distract the inhabitants from noticing the spies in their midst, the Almighty kept the inhabitants busy with funerals. During the spies stay, an unusually large number of people passed away every day, leaving the natives no time to take notice of the espionage team walking, eating, and sleeping among them. It was a miracle. This miracle was meant to show the spies that the Almighty would be with them in conquering the Promised Land at every step of the way.
But when the spies returned to the camp of the Jewish People, they chose to deride the Land specifically on this point. “The Land through which we have passed, to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants!” (ibid 32) They described the deaths that devastated the land throughout their visit and the many funerals they had witnessed with their own eyes...
The spies weakened the heart of the nation with reports of the might of Israel’s inhabitants (“All the people that we saw in it were huge!”) and scared them with sensational narratives about how hard it would be to conquer the country. The spies, fully aware of what they are doing, raised public opposition against the national mandate to take possession of the Promised Land.
Two of the espionage party rallied against the treasonous spies’ reports, crying, “We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it!”” (ibid 30) Calev ben Yephuneh (Caleb) and Yehoshua ben Nun (Joshua) tried to remind the nation of the directives of their heroic leader, Moshe. They entreated upon them not to lose sight of the promises made by the Almighty.
But the efforts of Calev and Yehoshua failed as the nation was swept away in grief-stricken terror. A night of weeping and bitterness expressed their profound lack of trust in the God who only so recently redeemed them from torturous Egyptian slavery: “If only we had died in Egypt, or if only we had died in the Wilderness! Why is Hashem bringing us to this Land to die by the sword? Our wives and young children will be taken captive! …Let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt!” (ibid 14:2-4) Their discrediting of all the miracles and kindness that had been shown them in the redemption from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, and their miraculous existence in the Sinai desert was astounding.
In fact, the damage those hours did to the Jew’s relationship with God was so deep that their night of misplaced weeping became the first in a long and terrible string of tragic events to unfold on that night throughout history. In the short term, their mistrust resulted in forty years of wandering through the desert until almost the entirety of that generation was deceased. In the long term, the eve of the 9th of Av, also known as Tisha B’Av, became a night of weeping for all generations until the final redemption.
What motivated the spies to instigate such destructive circumstances? What caused those ten men to destroy the very foundations of their own people? What perverse considerations allowed them to bring about so much human suffering? Over three million people cried out in a traumatized frenzy that night, so terrified that they considered overthrowing Moshe and returning to the land that had viciously murdered and enslaved them! How could the spies have done this?
Our sages explain that the spies were motivated by a simple human drive we are all familiar with: selfishness. For the spies, life in the desert was good. They enjoyed privileged leadership positions, a great deal of honor, and comforts that other members of the nation didn’t necessarily have. The spies feared that were the nation to ascend to Israel, the national government and leadership structures would change, and their present privileged positions would be lost.
We imagine that selfishness would never drive us to such extreme behaviors, but like every character trait, selfishness is a continuum. We can look at the world through generous, optimistic eyes and see the good, the possible, and the positive in any given person or situation. Alternatively, we can choose to focus on the broken, the ugly, and the lacking there. People see what they choose to see.
Fear drives selfishness and negativity drives fear. Do you choose to see the negative, get frightened, and behave selfishly?
One of our first defenses in the war against being a selfish, small person is to look at the world with an ayin tova, a good eye. A sense of security drives generosity towards others and trust in God drives a sense of security. So if you’re feeling worried, frightened, or just under the weather, don’t fall into despair. Don’t go back to Egypt. Talk to Him about it, ground yourself in trust in God, and face your life with confidence and inner peace. He hasn’t abandoned us yet, and He never will.