Numbers 13:1 – 15:41.Possibilism versus Catastrophism.01.06.13.Parashat Shlach l`chah

Numbers 13:1 – 15:41           Possibilism versus Catastrophism                       01.06.13

Parashat Shlach l`chah


Howard Adelman

This coming week a small group of us begin our conversation about Albert Hirschman using Jeremy Adelman`s biography as the starting point of the discussion. I will be sending out to the larger group on my blog list my initial contribution to that conversation. As it turns out, this, or now, last week`s parashat, Parashat Shlach l`chah, in which Numbers 13:1 – 15:41 is read offers a great introduction to Albert Hirschman.

Chapter thirteen tells the story of the twelve men, representatives of each of the tribes, sent into Israel to spy out the land and what they report back after their 40-day tour of duty. Chapter fourteen records God`s response to that report and the usual bargaining of the leader of the Israelites, Moses, to assuage God`s anger. Chapter fifteen offers further detailed instructions, not only on the temple offerings and the requirement that the same ritual and the same rule will apply to the Israelites and to the strangers that live among them, not only in distinguishing between inadvertent error and errors knowingly committed in defiance of the Lord, but also the instruction for the Israelites to make fringes on their garments throughout the ages with a cord of blue attached to each fringe as a memory device for observing God`s commandments. The general thrust of the commandment is to live and attend to the fringes, to the edges, to the small and seemingly irrelevant detail and not get caught up in building surface observations enhanced by fears into awesome idols. 

As Chapters 13 and 14, the subject of this commentary, make clear, look on the world with a combination of acute and accurate observation but also an attitude infused with hope rather than catastrophism. For Moses had instructed his spies, in accordance with God`s commandment, to see what kind of country Israel is, whether the people who dwell in the land are strong or weak, few or many and whether their cities and towns are or are not fortified.

When the twelve spies returned, they all concurred that the land was, as promised, a land of milk and honey as evidenced by the branch cut down with a huge single cluster of grapes that it took two men to carry between them and that is the symbol of tourism is present day Israel. However, they did not concur on the people who occupied that land, the strength of the people there and their ability to defend the land from the new invaders. Ten of the spies stressed their strength and said that the inhabitants were so huge that the Israelites were like grasshoppers. In Rwanda, it would be akin to the Akazu characterizing the Tutsi as cockroaches or inyenzi in the lead up to the genocide, only this time it was the Israelites characterizing themselves as grasshoppers rather than cockroaches. Ten saw the inhabitants as giants who would be impossible to overcome.

This was not the case with two of the scouts, Caleb and Joshua. Caleb in his report back said, `We shall overcome.` 31But the men who had gone up with him said, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” 32Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; 33 we saw the Nephilim there — the Anakites are part of the Nephilim — and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”

How could the ten spies see the world so differently than the other two? The ten saw what they did through a haze of fear. The two observed closely through eyes glowing with hope and promise. God punished the catastrophists with plague and denied their entry into the land of Israel while the possibilists were praised and allowed entry. Why were the ten punished for simply reporting back what they saw and the Israelites punished for believing them and crying out for their return to Egypt, the land they fled because of its oppression and denial of freedom?

When we observe, we either look at the world through a glass darkly or through a clear lens to see in the detail hopes and possibilities. Do we see a picture that sums up as definitive pictures of failure or do we see the possibilities for innovation and development, for advancement not only materially but ethically? The ten were punished for wearing dark glasses not for what they actually saw. Like Albert Hirschman who always saw development in terms a of realizing possibilities and saw himself as an economic spy in a foreign land, such detailed observations and insights that he made required not seeing the world superficially, as a tourist as it were, playing as Albert was prone to do on the Hebrew-English pun of latur, touring the land instead of dwelling with your imagination deep into its being.

Wearing tzitzit (fringes) is intended to remind us not to only see dangers stirred up by our fears but to look closely and carefully for possibilities lest in focusing on trifles and superficialities we end up seeing false and fearsome gods built out of trifles. We must observe broadly and expansively as well as deeply rather than narrowly and superficially. This is the lesson reinforced by the Haftorah portion (Joshua 2) and the story of the prostitute, Rachav (meaning “broad”), in Jericho who befriends and hides Caleb and Joshua and who teaches that observation is not only what you see with your eyes but what those eyes see when informed by an open and welcoming heart. Those who live on the edge, who live on the fringes, can make use of their capabilities of seeing and being open to possibilities instead of being determined in what they see by the doomsayers. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s