Monday, June 23, 2008

The sin of the spies

In Numbers 14, the spies come back from their mission and 10 of them report that Canaan is unconquerable. Two other spies disagree and argue that, with God, anything is possible. Instead of settling the matter, Moshe responds to the claims and counter claims by falling on his face and saying nothing. The thesis of this post is that Moshe's reaction was wrong, and contrary to well-established principles of Judaism. Instead, of suggesting with his body language that the two dissenting spies were correct, he should ruled plainly and forcefully in favor of the ten.

A few thousand years later, the great Rabbi Joshua found himself caught between Eliezer bin Hurkanus and all the Sages of Israel. According to the Mishna Rabbi Eliezer merit outweighed the rest of the Sages combined, and he was convinced a certain type of oven was ritually unfit. To make his case he mustered brilliant arguments; when they failed he called for various miracles and omens. "If the law agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!” he said, and the stream flowed backwards. "If the law agrees with me let the walls of the study house prove it" and the walls began to collapse. When he saw that neither his arguments nor his signs had swayed the other sages he called for the support of heaven, and a divine voice was heard saying "Why do you disagree with Eliezer bin Hurkanus who is always right?"

According to the Babylonian Temple, Rabbi Joshua protested: Lo Bashamayim Hi “The Torah is not in heaven!” We pay no attention to a divine voice because long ago at Mount Sinai it was written "incline after the majority."

The ten spies who said it was safer and smarter to stay in the dessert were not ordinary men. They were, according to Rashi (citing the Tanchuma) virtuous men. Men of great distinction. They'd been at Mount Sinai. They were the leaders of their tribes. In the language of 21st century Orthodox Judaism, they were "gedolim." Tzadikim. And they were of the opinion that Israel's destiny was in the dessert. By what right did Moshe disagree with them, in favor of the minority? Lo bashamayim he. We pay no attention to a divine voice. God Himself has no power to overule the majority.

Some have attempted to argue that the 10 spies were "reshaim" but that's circular reasoning: We only call them "reshaim" because they went against the will of God, but how do we know they went againt the will of God? Why don't we say that the will of God is represented by their decision? Because they're reshaim! (see? Circular.)


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