Shelach lecha

"When Moses repeated these words to the Israelites, the people were overcome with grief" Numbers 14.39

By Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh, June 16, 2011

The spies have returned from touring the Promised Land and, in a paradigmatic way, are divided about what they have seen and its significance; ten out of the twelve are sunk in misery and pessimism, and only two are full of confidence and hope.

The Israelites en bloc side with the ten rather than the two, and as a result, in spite of an impassioned plea by Moses to the thirteen attributes of God, a swingeing divine punishment is pronounced and all the members of the slave generation are condemned to die in the wilderness. It is a terrible blow and a radical, surgical removal of all the faint hearts and minds from the people but it is irrevocable and Moses argues no more.

As a people, we have a rare talent for division. Indeed, to no small degree it is division and disagreement that most typify our journey through history; to our detractors the Jewish people may have been monochrome, but to ourselves we have always been a multi-coloured riot of often wildly clashing colours. Yet as we know, in our darkest times, our enemies have never sought to differentiate Jews according to their areas of agreement or disagreement but have lumped us all together as they herded us to our doom. This may explain why there is still such reluctance publicly to disagree between ourselves, even though our private quarrels may be bitter and venomous, ostensibly so as not to bring embarrassment in front of "them".

But if the experience of the spies teaches us anything it is that, contrary to what we may imagine, the majority is often wrong and with the awkward, dissenting voice of the minority may lie the real truth. However ancient we are as a people, we will only have really grown up when we can be ourselves in public as well as private, warts and all.

Last updated: 11:36am, June 16 2011