Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Parashat Shelach-Lecha - Seeing Is Believing


In Parashat Yitro, G-d introduces the Decalogue by saying "I am the L-rd your [singular possessive] G-d who took you [singular] out of Mizraim..."

Why does G-d start the grand eternal process of Mattan Torah by addressing the individual Jew? Does it work? What does it lead to?

The Meraglim - the Spies sent to reconnoiter the Land of Canaan prior to the planned ascent and possession of the Land by Bnei Israel - represent the first recorded case of mass Apikorsut. And it is the Apikorsim who are the true foundation of all Avodah Zarah (Idol Worship). The most powerful form of Avodah Zarah, precisely because we do not recognize it as such.

When Moshe instructs the Meraglim in what to look for, it is obvious that no one knows what the land of Canaan looks like. We know it is our Eternal Prmise, and that we will receive certain blessings once we possess the Land. But we have no idea what we will find there. It is a mystery, and one that must be taken entirely on faith.

A nation of slaves went through tribulation and the pain of escape, of wandering in the desert - and will suffer through an additional thirty-eight years as a direct result of the actions of the twelve men who were sent to spy out the Land - all for a plot of real estate none of them has ever seen.

Caleb actually instigates the whole mess by speaking up - unasked - in the middle of the detailed descrption of the Land and urging the People to "go up, go up!" It is only then that he unleashes the others' vehement doubts, and the anger and disappointment rises to such pitch that the crowd is about to stone Caleb and Yehoshua.

What is Avodah Zarah? And what is an Apikoros?

It has been said that, in order to qualify as beintg an Apikoros, one must first become a Talmid Hacham. It believe the more accurate assessment is that, as Apikorsut is an outgrowth of the intellect, the Apikoros tends to be a supremely intelligent person. An Apikoros believes the testimony of human perception. But the determining factor is: the Apikoros believes that the human perception and feeling actually creates the underpinning of the inner truth of Torah.

A Rasha' - a Wicked Person - says: "I know G-d commanded us to keep kosher, but I don't care." An Apikoros says: "Three thousand years ago it was dangerous to eat meat in dishes that milk had been cooked in. You could get food poisoning. Nowadays, we have refrigeration and sterilization, it's OK." What most people do not expressly state, but what underlies this statement, is "And that's the way G-d wants it to be."

A Rasha' understands perfectly well that the Torah operates on its own internal principles but rejects them because the Rasha' refuses to yield his or her personal will to the Will of Torah, expressed most succinctly in living Halachically.

An Apikoros accepts the testimony of human perception and believes the world can be known thoroughly by means of logic, applied to the perception of our own senses. Paradoxically, the Apikoros is more likely to believe that he or she is submitting to the "true" Will of G-d. The Apikoros believes that the Will of G-d infuses Torah, but that the rules and behaviors dictated by Torah rise from the Time and Place in which they were written down, and thus no longer accurately reflect the original Will of G-d.

The Rasha' completely accepts that Torah binds us, yet she or he rejects it nonetheless. The Apikoros often accepts Torah as "a way of life," paying great homage to the importance of "our eternal tradition". It's just that, when it comes to what the Torah really means to say (or really should have said), the Apikoros knows better.

This week's parasha elevates the act of Seeing to unprecendented heights. In this parasha, we are shown Seeing as both Faith, and as Apikorsut. We are shown Seeing as an act that simultaneously humbles us, and elevates us.

And what is Avodah Zarah, but the spiritual attachment to what we see.

If G-d had shown us a map, a photographic guidebook of the Promised Land, how manyt people would have actually chosen to go there? Imagine you are sitting in the parched desert and are offered a holiday brochure. Do you want to go to this arid patch of land, sparsely covered with grass and stunted trees, and populated by ioncredibly ruthless people at constant war with one another? My reaction would be: Maybe you have a cruise to the Greek Isles? A weekend in Paris?

We could not have been shown the Land, but have to come to it on our own terms. As an act of faith.

This is the greatness of Caleb - which, by the way, merits him a comparison with Abraham, the Man of Faith. In chapter 14, verse 24, G-d says G-d will single out Caleb and bring him into the Land - "ve 'avdi Caleb 'ekev hayita ruach acheret 'imo..." - "And my servant Caleb, BECAUSE ['ekev] there was a different spirit within him..." This word - 'ekev - is the word with which G-d uplifts Abraham at the Akeidah, granting him an eternal covenant "BECAUSE ['eikev] you listened to my voice..."

What is the message of this Parasha, which ends - inexplicably, it would seem - with the paragraph on Tzitzit?

The paragraph of Tzitzit actually leads up to a restatement of the First Commandment - only this time it is cast in plural form: I am the L-rd your [plural possessive] G-d whoi brought you [plural] out of Mizraim...

The Meraglim went up to Spy Out - la-tur - the Land. The verb carries a sense of expoloiting, of appetite, of taking what we want. And the Mitzvah of Tzitzit is not merely to wear them - indeed, this is a complex discussion, for there is no Mitzvah to wear Tzitzit at all! The Mitzvah is: "And you shall see them, and you shall not go after [taturu - the same verb that applies to the Meraglim] the whims of your mind and the whims of your eyes..." There is more, in fact. I read the entire string of verbs that follows the act of seeing the Tzitzit as a single Mitzvah:

Look upon them. Remember all of G-d's Mitzvot, and do them. And do not follow the whims of your mind (the Torah's word "lev", meaning Heart, has the same meaning as the modern term Mind: it is the organ of thought, of understanding and comprehension.) and do not follow the whims [appetites] of your eyes. These are whorish desires. So that you remember and do all of G-d's Mitzvot and become holy like your G-d.

The Meraglim saw with their own eyes. They say (13:33) "we appeared in our own eyes as grasshoppers - and so we appeared to them too."

We followed the whim of our eyes. We went with our first feeling - our own conviction that this would not work out.

Jews are not often big on talking about Faith. But it takes tremendous faith to get up in the morning, to cross the street. To put one's children on the schoolbus and take the train into the office. If our history of enslavement in Mizraim did not teach us - if the return after the Babylonian Captivity did not teach us - if our survival after the Expulsion of 1492 did not teach us - if the emergence of a nation after the Holocaust did not teach us - if the great moments of human history do not teach us, then perhaps it is because we see the world topo much through our own eyes.

Wipe the strings of techelet across your eyelids and pray that it clarifies your perception. Life is short - whatever destiny awaits, it awaits us now. If we put it off because of a momentary feeling, we might wander for thirty-eight more years, then die in the wilderness, even with our goal within sight.

Yours for a better world.


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