Recently, an Israeli film called "The Museum" was released. It’s a documentary film describing events behind the scenes at the Israel Museum.
The movie opens with a black screen. You hear a woman asking, "What do you see here?" and a man’s voice describing what he sees.
Slowly the picture becomes clearer and you realize that the scene consists of a blind woman who is sitting in front of a picture in the museum.
[A picture by Rene Magritte, known for his surrealist paintings.]
The interviewer asks her: "Do you come here a lot?"
And she answers: "I come here every day.
"Every day someone else describes what they see in this picture."
And the interviewer is impressed and asks: "If that’s so, do you think you've already figured out what the picture looks like?"
And the woman answers: "I haven’t been able to learn anything about the picture, but I've learned a lot about the people who described it."
Each person who stood next to the blind woman saw the exact same picture, but described it differently, based on his or her understanding, his or her heart, his or her associations, his or her story.
The story of the spies in Parashat Sh’lach Lecha is a similar story. Twelve spies, the leaders of the Israelites, are sent to explore the land of Canaan and see what it is like. The land is the same land. The picture is the same picture. But the descriptions of the spies are different. They each look at exactly the same thing, but they do not see the same…
To understand why this is so, we will try to discern the differences between their versions:
All the spies agree on two things – on the one hand, the land is flowing with milk and honey, and has great and amazing fruits growing there. (Think of a large cluster of grapes that may require two hands to hold it. Now imagine the cluster of grapes that they brought, which was so enormous that it required two people to carry it together on a pole, can you imagine!?) On the other hand, there are giants in the Land. And it is surrounded by enemies (sound familiar?)
But despite their agreement on the situation in the Land of Canaan, their conclusions are different.
Ten spies see this picture and understand that there is no chance of entering the land. Moreover, they convince the entire nation that if they try to fight the inhabitants of the land, they will die in battle. They describe a dark vision.
And this is what they say:
“We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” 32 And they spread among the Israelites a slanderous report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. 33 We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Numbers 13:31-33)
On the other hand, Caleb ben Yefunneh, who saw the same picture, draws a completely different conclusion: “Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said: “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.”(Number 13: 30)
But the people of Israel are stunned by the description by the ten spies, and begin weeping and complaining to Moses and Aaron that now they are going to die in battle – they would have been better off dying in Egypt or in the desert. In response Caleb and Joshua tear their garments and say the following reassuring words:
“The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the LORD is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them.” (Numbers 14:7-9)
There is no disagreement between the ten spies and Caleb and Joshua with respect to the quality of the land or with respect to the enemies who live in it and around it. But the conclusions they draw are totally opposite.
The ten spies believe that there is no chance of succeeding in conquering the land, but Joshua and Caleb believe that it can be done.
Why? What makes Caleb and Joshua able to imagine a possible victory and the other spies so hopeless?
Each one of us has our own emotional baggage, which can guide us and make us act in one way or another. Some of these emotions have a beneficial effect, lifting us up and helping us handle things better, and some of them leave us where we are (in our comfort zone) or even drag us further down.
The beneficial emotions are not just the happy ones. Anger, for example, is a powerful and usually unpleasant emotion, which can even be scary at certain degrees of intensity. But most change begins with anger. It’s an emotion that prods us to act and change our situation, to have an influence on what is making us angry. Social activism is often driven by anger.
In our story, the spies are driven by fear. Joshua criticizes them for exactly this reason – it comes up twice in his response: “Do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them.” They are so afraid that they tend to describe the situation as more dark than it really is – “spreading a slanderous report about the land”. We all know this feeling: when we are afraid of something we tend to describe it in much worse terms than how it is really going to happen. The next stage is often desperation and a feeling of helplessness. Impotence, and ineffectiveness.
There is something convenient about desperation, because it doesn’t require us to act. There is nothing to be done, so let’s do nothing.
On the other side, Joshua and Caleb make the decision to see and accentuate the positive: – “The land is exceedingly good.” They focus on the good, not the bad, and paint an optimistic picture. As well as focussing on the good, they have faith. In their statement to the people they stress that this is God’s will. God is with us and he will give us the land. He brought us this far in order to succeed. They have a reason. They have a “Why” and the “Why” lets them deal with the “How”. It doesn’t hide the difficulties, but it makes it easier to deal with them.
We can all learn a lot about our own lives from these descriptions. Where are we allowing negative and down-dragging emotions to force us into desperation and inactivity? How can we enrich our lives with more faith, more seeing and accentuating everything good, and actually change our situation.
Looking at the positive isn’t just focussing on one aspect that exists in reality, it actually creates it. Building up the muscle of looking at the good side makes us into different people: happier, better to ourselves and others, more active. It literally and actually changes reality.
Can we learn something from the parasha about the way we see the State of Israel today?
We can always choose to focus on everything bad and scary: the security situation, all Israel’s problems, the absence of the recognition and support that we would like to see for liberal Jewish denominations in Israel. If we look for them, we can find lots of reasons to lose hope and give up.
But what Caleb and Joshua teach us in the parasha is the importance of looking for what is good in Israel. It wasn’t only at the time of the spies that the Jewish people was waiting to enter the Promised Land. Also after we were scattered through the Diaspora, the Jewish people continued praying, believing and hoping for 2,000 years that we could return to Israel. That we would have a Jewish state, open to every Jew, a state with fantastic achievements in education, science, and technology. A state with great achievements in spite of only having existed for 70 years. And as part of the Conservative Movement in the world, we have a lot to be proud of in the achievements of Hatenua Hamasoratit – the Conservative Movement in Israel, which provides a Judaism connected to its roots, pluralistic, open, and accepting all people. This is a great message for the State of Israel. Something which the State of Israel needs.
Yes, there are still things that need to be changed. There are still challenges. There are still things that make us angry. But that is only a voice calling us to be part of it, to be involved, to be active, so that we can be even prouder of Israel!