The art of seeing

As Moses was about to lead the Jewish people into the Promised Land, they requested to first send an advance party of spies. G-d consented, and Moses directed the 12 chosen spies to determine the strength of Canaan’s inhabitants and the quality of the land.

After 40 days, the spies returned, and ten of them reported, “It is a land of milk and honey…however the people are very fierce, and the cities are large and well fortified.”Suddenly, Caleb, the 11th spy, cut them off proclaiming, “We should go up immediately and occupy the land, because we can surely prevail!”

The spies, however, insisted that the land couldn’t be conquered because its people were too powerful. Accepting this gloomy report exposed the nation’s lack of faith, and G-d condemned them to perish during 40 years of wandering in the desert.

Since G-d approved the reconnaissance mission, it is difficult to understand His harsh reaction to the spies’ assessment. In addition, what provoked Caleb’s stern outburst after the initial report of the spies? They were merely reporting their findings.

The Midrash describes those who despaired of the land as a “topsy-turvy generation” (Numbers Rabbah 16:5). The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that the error of the spies was in reversing the order of what Moses asked them to determine. Moses’ focus was on carrying out G-d’s will that the land of Canaan be conquered, so he directed the spies to first report on the strength of its’ inhabitants.

When the spies returned and began to describe the quality of the land, Caleb suspected that their interest centered on the material benefits of Canaan. He feared they would weigh the effort and danger needed to take the land versus the potential payoff, and decide that the project was not worthwhile. Hoping to nip them in the bud before spreading their seeds of doubt to the people, Caleb hastened to silence the spies.

The incident of the spies is followed in the Torah by the commandment to attach tzitzit, ritual fringes, to the corners of a garment. The connection between these passages is not simply their proximity. The Torah uses some form of the word latoor 11 times in describing the mission of the spies. Significantly, the Torah uses this same word to describe the effect of looking at the tzitzit, “…You shall not go astray (tatooroo) after your hearts and after your eyes…”

According to Rabbi Mendel Lewittes, the Torah is asserting here that sin is a process. It is often assumed that our eyes are engaged by something, and then our hearts begin to desire it. The Torah maintains, however, that the process begins within our hearts (innermost values), which conditions what our eyes notice. Two people see a valuable lost object on the street; one relates to it as a mitzvah and seeks to find the owner – the other sees it lining his pockets.

The problem with the spies stemmed from how they viewed the land of Israel. Moses, Caleb and his colleague Joshua were focused on implementing G-d’s plan for the Jewish people to conquer it. Therefore, their concern was to determine how strong its defenders were in order to formulate a plan of attack. The other spies viewed the land as a potential source of material benefit, and so they concentrated on its qualities.

The commandment of tzitzit addresses the spies and all who err like them – attitude affects perception. The faith of the spies slipped, because they placed self-interest above the will of G-d. The tzitzit call us to cast our gaze on them, draw us to meditate on the path of Torah, and gently guide us to envision the world in line with the Divine.

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