Parasha Shlach Lecha

The Power of Money
In this week’s Torah reading, Moses instructs twelve spies, one for each of Israel's tribes, to investigate the characteristics of the land the people are about to enter.  The Torah describes these twelve men as “notables” and “all leaders of the people”.  The spies travel throughout the land of Israel during the course of forty days, and they return to the camp bearing an enormous load of the fruit of the land.

Yet when they return, their testimony is contradictory.  On the one hand, they assert that the land is one which "flows with milk and honey," a land bounteous and fertile.  On the other hand, they also insist that the people in the land are giants–nefillim–who cause the hearts of those who see them to collapse. Based on the perceived strength of the inhabitants, ten of the spies urge Israel not to try to conquer the land, despite the assurances of God and of Moses that they would do so successfully. Alone among the spies, Caleb and Joshua assert, with complete faith, that Israel should enter and take the land immediately.[1] Our rabbis were perplexed, to say the least, about the behavior of the ten spies who urged the people not to try to enter the land.  Their description of the obstacles in front of the Israelites sent the people into a panic.  The people completely rebelled against Moses and threatened to kill Caleb and Joshua, who had delivered the minority report.  Our rabbis were perplexed, because these ten spies were described as leaders of the people and as men of renown.  They were chosen because they were trustworthy. How could they turn so completely against Moses, against G-d, and against the mission of the Jewish people? Two possibilities presented themselves to our rabbis.  According to the Maharal of Praugue, circa 1600, it was the people who pushed for the mission to spy out the land.  Because they were filled with doubt about the veracity of Moshe’s reports of the goodness of the Land of Israel, these people initiated the mission with the hopes that the report would come back negative.  While the men on the mission were initially righteous, their sponsors were not.  When the spies agreed to represent the tribes who sent them, they became transformed into their sponsors and looked for reasons for their mission to fail.[2] In other words, they were good men, corrupted by money.  Another theory, put forth by the RamBAN  (13th century Spain) is that the ten spies, who were leaders of great stature in the desert community, became concerned about what their status would be when the people settled in the Land of Canaan.  Upon settling in the Land of Caanan, the people would be transformed from a desert, nomadic society to a settled, agriculture one.  With this change would come great economic and social upheavals.  The spies, according to this theory, were concerned about losing their exalted places in this new society. Therefore, they campaigned tent to tent throughout the camp of Israel to convince people that they should refuse to enter the land.  Thus, by sowing doubt into the minds of the Israelites, they protected the status quo and their own special interests. This being both the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-ins and an election year, it is interesting to consider these two theories, articulated 400 and 800 years ago and what they can teach us of our own times.  Some things don’t change, do they?  The chief lesson of Watergate was this: “Of all the corrupting influences in politics, none takes a back seat to unlimited and unaccountable money[3].”  Yet, that is exactly what we have today.  How can big money, given anonymously, as is possible today, influence otherwise good men and women.  Do our leaders truly represent us, or do they represent the interests of their sponsors – sponsors who are unknown to us.  Conversely, how do we know when our leaders are putting their best interests above the interests of the country as a whole?  I certainly have no answers.  We would all be wise, however, to ponder the question this election year.       

[1] Rabbi Bradley Artson “The Power of Perception”  sermon 5764
[2] Rabbi Ed Davis  “Torah Dialogue”  Shelach  5772
[3] “Watergate Lesson Lost” by Jules Witcover, Chicago Tribune, June 15, 2012