Whose idea was it to send the spies? According to this week’s sedra, it was G-d. The Lord said to Moses, “Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send one of its leaders.” So at the Lord’s command Moses sent them out from the Desert of Paran. (Numbers 13: 1-3)
According to Moses in Deuteronomy, it was the people:
Then all of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead to spy out the land for us and bring back a report about the route we are to take and the towns we will come to.” The idea seemed good to me; so I selected twelve of you, one man from each tribe. (Deut. 1: 22-23)
Rashi reconciles the apparent contradiction. The people came to Moses with their request. Moses asked G-d what he should do. G-d gave him permission to send the spies. He did not command it; He merely did not oppose it. “Where a person wants to go, that is where he is led” (Makkot 10b) – so said the sages. Meaning: G-d does not stop people from a course of action on which they are intent, even though He knows that it may end in tragedy. Such is the nature of the freedom G-d has given us. It includes the freedom to make mistakes.
However, Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed III: 32) offers an interpretation that gives a different perspective to the whole episode. He begins by noting the verse (Ex. 13: 17) with which the exodus begins:
When Pharaoh let the people go, G-d did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For G-d said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So G-d led the people around by the desert road toward the Reed Sea.
Maimonides comments: “Here G-d led the people about, away from the direct route he had originally intended, because He feared that they might encounter hardships too great for their present strength. So He took them by a different route in order to achieve His original object.” He then adds the following:
It is a well known fact that traveling in the wilderness without physical comforts such as bathing produces courage, while the opposite produces faint-heartedness. Besides this, another generation rose during the wanderings that had not been accustomed to degradation and slavery.
According to Maimonides, then, it was irrelevant who sent the spies. Nor was the verdict after the episode – that the people would be condemned to spend 40 years in the wilderness, and that it would only be their children who would enter the land – a punishment as such. It was an inevitable consequence of human nature.
It takes more than a few days or weeks to turn a population of slaves into a nation capable of handling the responsibilities of freedom. In the case of the Israelites it needed a generation born in liberty, hardened by the experience of the desert, untrammeled by habits of servitude. Freedom takes time, and there are no shortcuts. Often it takes a very long time indeed.
That dimension of time is fundamental to the Jewish view of politics and human progress. That is why, in the Torah, Moses repeatedly tells the adults to educate their children, to tell them the story of the past, to “remember”. It is why the covenant itself is extended through time – handed on from one generation to the next. It is why the story of the Israelites is told at such length in Tanakh: the time-span covered by the Hebrew Bible is a thousand years from the days of Moses to the last of the prophets. It is why G-d acts in and through history.
Unlike Christianity or Islam there is, in Judaism, no sudden transformation of the human condition, no one moment or single generation in which everything significant is fully disclosed. Why, asks Maimonides (Guide, III: 32), did G-d not simply give the Israelites in the desert the strength or self-confidence they needed to cross the Jordan and enter the land? His answer: because it would have meant saying goodbye to human freedom, choice and responsibility.
Even G-d Himself, implies Maimonides, has to work with the grain of human nature and its all-too-slow pace of change. Not because G-d cannot change people: of course He can. He created them; He could re-create them. The reason is that G-d chooses not to. He practices what the Safed Kabbalists called tzimtzum, self-limitation. He wants human beings to construct a society of freedom – and how could He do that if, in order to bring it about, He had to deprive them of the very freedom He wanted them to create. There are some things a parent may not to for a child if he or she wants the child to become an adult. There are some things even G-d must choose not to do for His people if He wants them to grow to moral and political maturity.
In one of my books I called this the chronological imagination, as opposed to the Greek logical imagination. Logic lacks the dimension of time. That is why philosophers tend to be either rigidly conservative (Plato did not want poets in his Republic; they threatened to disturb the social order) or profoundly revolutionary (Rousseau, Marx). The current social order is either right or wrong. If it is right, we should not change it. If it is wrong, we should overthrow it. The fact that change takes time, even many generations, is not an idea easy to square with philosophy (even those philosophers, like Hegel and Marx, who factored in time, did so mechanically, speaking about “historical inevitability” rather than the unpredictable exercise of freedom).
One of the odd facts about Western civilization in recent centuries is that the people who have been most eloquent about tradition – Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott, T.S. Eliot – have been deeply conservative, defenders of the status quo. Yet there is no reason why a tradition should be conservative. We can hand on to our children not only our past but also our unrealized ideals. We can want them to go beyond us; to travel further on the road to freedom than we were able to do. That, for example, is how the Seder service on Pesach begins: “This year, slaves, next year free; this year here, next year in Israel”. A tradition can be evolutionary without being revolutionary.
That is the lesson of the spies. Despite the Divine anger, the people were not condemned to permanent exile. They simply had to face the fact that their children would achieve what they themselves were not ready for.
People still forget this. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were undertaken, at least in part, in the name of democracy and freedom. Yet that is the work not of a war, but of education, society-building, and the slow acceptance of responsibility. It takes generations. Sometimes it never happens at all. The people – like the Israelites, demoralized by the spies’ report – lose heart and want to go back to the predictable past (“Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt”), not the unseen, hazardous, demanding future. That is why, historically, there have been more tyrannies than democracies.
The politics of liberty demands patience. It needs years of struggle without giving up hope. The late Emmanuel Levinas spoke about “difficult freedom” – and freedom always is difficult. The story of the spies tells us that the generation who left Egypt were not yet ready for it. That was their tragedy. But their children would be. That was their consolation.
The Common Good Thought for the Day – BBC Radio 4 – March 2010
On Wednesday this week the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales issued a document called “Choosing the common good.” And it’s interesting, because at a time when our minds are focused on the general election, which can’t be far away, it speaks about the things that aren’t decided by elections, that can’t be legislated by governments, and yet they affect the very tone and texture of society and the quality of people’s lives.
Things like trust and compassion and generosity; the solidarity and courtesy we show as citizens; and the strength of our families and communities. These things are never decided by votes, and yet they make all the difference to the extent we feel supported by society or, to contrary, to which we feel vulnerable and alone. It’s worth recalling that the word politics itself means two things, not one. There’s the sense in which we use it today, to describe parties, elections and who gets to form the next government, politics as the competition for power.
But there’s an older sense in which it has to do with the polis, the city, or what today we’d call society. And that’s less about competition than co-operation, less about power than about what holds us together through a sense of collective identity and shared fate. It’s what unites us regardless of the way we vote. It’s about the common good.
And that depends not just on governments but on us, all of us together. It lives in habits of the heart born in families, practiced in neighbourhoods, and renewed daily in unspectacular acts of kindness and help. If we lose these, no legislation in the world can put them back again.
That’s something Jews learned through the experience of living for almost 2,000 years as a minority often without civil rights. They survived through the sheer strength of their marriages, communities, welfare institutions, synagogues and schools. Even though they completely lacked political power, they had a polis in the second sense: a bond of belonging and mutual responsibility.
Religious communities and other groups do this all the time, without ever hitting the headlines: supporting families, building communities and speaking to the better angels of our nature. Politics works best when we remember the limits of politics. As Oliver Goldsmith put it: “How small, of all that human hearts endure, That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!” The other part, the polis, is made by us daily every time we seek the common good.