When one of my daughters was four years old, she was looking out the front window and shouted in delight, “Daddy! Look! The chocolate truck is here!” I looked out the window and saw a UPS truck. To her, a brown truck was…the chocolate truck! People can look at the same thing and differ in their interpretation of it.
This is the story of the spies. Twelve highly esteemed leaders, one from each tribe, were chosen to scout out Eretz Yisrael. Ten of this group returned and gave an unfavorable report about Eretz Yisrael. The Jewish nation accepted this report. For this crime, Hashem decreed the Jews would sojourn in the desert for 40 years before entering Eretz Yisrael! Only two of the spies, Kalev and Yehoshua, gave a favorable report.
So, were the spies really outstanding leaders? The Torah at the beginning of Parshas Shelach calls them “anashim”—men—which Rashi explains to signify great stature and righteousness. Yet Rashi seems to change his mind when they return. Rashi quotes the Gemara that interprets the words, “They went and they came”: Just as they were wicked when they returned, so too were they were wicked when they set out for the mission. So—were they really good or bad?
Rav Noach Weinberg (founder and late rosh yeshiva of Aish Hatorah) explains they were sent on a mission where objectively they should have reported that the land was wonderful and the people would easily conquer it with Hashem’s help. However, the people were afraid and they really wanted the spies to confirm their fears! Although they were good leaders, the 10 spies’ fear of standing up to the entire nation and telling them something they did not want to hear affected their perception. They were righteous to start with, but the negative influence of the people changed their perception.
Each spy witnessed the same events and sights, yet their interpretation was very different. They each saw funerals in all the cities they scouted. Ten of them perceived high mortality and gloom. Yet Kalev and Yehoshua saw the Hand of Hashem making the people preoccupied with their losses so they wouldn’t notice the spies. All 12 spies saw that the fruits of the land were gigantic. Ten interpreted this as abnormal, indicating a land of fearsome giants. Yet Kalev and Yehoshua saw the land as abounding in blessing. Public sentiment caused the spies to interpret the circumstances and sights in different ways.
The opinion of the public is an incredibly strong influence. We see this in our daily lives with the clothes we wear and the cars we drive. Of course, there’s no reason to completely stand out. We don’t need to make our children feel like outcasts with clothing choices. Still, it’s important to be confident in our choices and decisions without being unduly swayed by public opinion.
In the current COVID situation, we feel certain pressures. Do I need to wear a mask? Should I make the effort to maintain social distancing? What are the neighbors doing? Do I make decisions based on our rabbinic leaders’ guidance, formulated with the advice of local medical health organizations, or are my decisions based on local public behavior?
The bigger picture is subject to fluctuation as well. Groups are lobbying the governor and mayors to allow additional public activities. Should economic and political pressure influence decisions on public safety? There are multiple ways to interpret the same data, and our interests are affected by how the numbers are interpreted. As individuals and as groups, it’s easy to get swept along by public pressure.
How do we make the right choices? Rav Moshe Wolfson says we need to pray to Hashem for divine guidance. Kalev and Yehoshua would have been swept away by pressure from the nation if not for special measures that protected them. Yehoshua’s name was initially Hoshea. Moshe added the letter yud to his name (the letter yud signifying Hashem’s name), making it Yehoshua, which stands for Kah Hoshiacha, Hashem will save you. This constituted a prayer for Hashem to give Yehoshua extra support.
During the spying mission, Kalev went to daven at the Me’aras Hamachpela (the Cave of the Patriarchs) as a merit to not be swayed by the pressure of the other spies and the nation.
There are two connections that can give us the courage to withstand social pressures: A strong connection and adherence to the direction of our rebbeim, and a connection with our parents and grandparents.
Yehoshua was the dedicated disciple of Moshe. His rebbi, Moshe, prayed for him and thereby helped give him the strength to advocate his true opinions. Kalev connected to his grandparents. Our rebbeim, our parents and grandparents—these are the anchors we need to maintain our own value system, which allows us to act appropriately even if our actions differ from those around us.
Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate rosh yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch. PTI has attracted people from all over northern New Jersey, including Teaneck, Paramus, Fair Lawn, Livingston and West Orange. He initiated and leads a multi-level Gemara-learning program. He has spread out beyond PTI to begin a weekly beis medrash program with in-depth chavrusa learning in Livingston, Fort Lee and a monthly group in West Caldwell. Rabbi Bodenheim can be reached at [email protected] For more info about PTI and its full offering of torah classes visit www.pti.shulcloud.com.