Rabbi Weinreb’s Column on Parshat Sh’lach

One of the worst experiences imaginable is betrayal. The shocking discovery that someone who has been a trusted friend or lover has turned against the person who trusted him is an unspeakable horror. Learning that one’s downfall is directly attributable to the very person whom one was counting on for success is overwhelming and nearly impossible to accept.

Literature abounds with examples of betrayal. So powerful is this experience that the greatest writers cannot help but be fascinated by stories of betrayal, and devote much of their efforts to exploring its roots and its consequences. Every fledgling reader of Shakespeare can quote the dying words of Julius Caesar, as he surveyed the faces of his assassins and found that his trusted friend Brutus was among them. “Et tu, Brute?” he exclaimed. One cannot help but be moved by the profound pain that those words express. “You, whom I trusted as a friend, also turned against me”.

The phenomenon of betrayal exists in every arena of human life, in government, in work, and in marriage. It is in this latter context that betrayal is perhaps most painful of all. To learn that one’s loyal spouse, upon whom one relied in the most intimate of all relationships, has been unfaithful is epic tragedy and emotionally inexpressible. It is no wonder that the cuckold is the character who is most mocked, and yet most pitied, in all of literature.

The emotion of disappointment, although painful, is less than, and qualitatively different from, betrayal. Disappointment is the reaction to the failure of another to act according to expectations. Betrayal is the discovery that one has been mistaken in whom he thought the other to be. When a person upon whom we rely does not do what we expect of him, we are disappointed. When a person turns out not to be the person we think he is, we feel betrayed.

Disappointment is an emotion that we experience when we think we know how the other would behave and are proven wrong. We feel stupid, perhaps, but not deeply wounded.

Betrayal, on the other hand, is when we think we know who the person is; a friend, a partner, a mentor, a lover, a holy man; and then that person is discovered to have been an imposter all along, a fraud. We are not only mistaken in our expectations of his behavior. Rather, we are proven wrong in our understanding of the identity, of the very nature, of the person who let us down.

In this week’s Torah reading, the Jewish people were betrayed. They were betrayed by a group of men whom they misidentified. These men were chosen because they were thought to be leaders, because it was hoped that they would show the courage and possess the vision to move the Israelites from the status of “desert-wanderers” into the Promised Land. But these men turned out to be cowardly, weak, and grossly deficient in the attributes of leadership. They were not whom they were thought to be.

Moses and Aaron felt betrayed. The Almighty felt betrayed. And we, the readers of the story, also feel betrayed. As we are introduced to these men in the opening verses of the parsha, we expect a great deal from them. The story unfolds. They are not the heroes we think they are. We feel betrayed. The consequences of this betrayal are severe indeed: an additional forty years of desolation, the frustration of a dream, and the postponement of a Divine plan. Such are the fruits of betrayal.

This week’s Torah reading gives us an opportunity to reflect upon this most poignant of human experiences, and this most painful one: betrayal. The betrayal by leaders of their followers is the most poignant and painful of all.

Fortunately, the reader of the Torah portion can take encouragement from the example of Joshua and Caleb, who were not guilty of betrayal. They knew who they were, and the self-confidence that comes with self-knowledge enabled them to be more, not less, than what they were expected to be. They not only demonstrated the leadership qualities that their mission entailed, but surpassed their mission by defying the pressures of their fellows. Their image of themselves conformed to the image others had of them, and this self-knowledge allowed them to even transcend their initial assignment. They went beyond “spying” to praise the land, and to exude courage and hope. They are a model of Jewish leaders to this very day.