Angry giants or good land Fears still can incapacitate

Shelach Lecha Numbers 13:1-15:41 Joshua 2:1-24 I Samuel 20:18, 2 Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal was haunted by a troubling event from his youth when he was interned in a concentration camp. He observed that there was only one prayerbook in the camp, and he was offended that the man who owned it would only let people pray from it if they gave him a portion of their meager food allowance.

Once, when Wiesenthal told this story to a rabbi to explain why he wasn't religious, the rabbi asked Wiesenthal, "Why do you focus so much on what that selfish, manipulative man did and not make note of what all the other people did? Aren't you impressed that people who were starving would be willing to give up some of their precious food allowance in order to hold a prayerbook in their hands for even a few minutes?" Wiesenthal realized that he had focused only on the greed of one man and not on the piety, faith and sacrifice of so many others.

This account points to the problem of perspective, the proverbial half-empty or half-full glass; it is a reminder that an optimist and a pessimist will interpret the same event in opposite ways.

Shelach Lecha, this week's Torah portion, also focuses on the tension found in any observation when individuals see the same incident through different eyes. Twelve spies were sent out to investigate the inhabitability of the Promised Land. Moses charged them with their responsibility:

"Go up…and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land" (Numbers 13:17-18).

The spies returned with one giant cluster of grapes so huge that two spies hung it over a pole carried on their shoulders. Nevertheless, 10 of the 12 spies noted that while the land was indeed, lush, they pessimistically reported that "the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large" (Numbers 13:28), and "the country…is one that devours its settlers. All the people…are men of huge stature…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them" (Numbers 13:32-33).

Only Joshua and Caleb were optimistic: "The land…is an exceedingly good land…that flows with milk and honey" (Numbers 14:7-8).

Ironically, in spite of how they thought of themselves, fast-forwarding 10 chapters in the Book of Numbers reveals a striking contrast. Read the account of Balak, a local petty ruler who lived in fear of the Israelites, whom he described as "a people that came out of Egypt [that] hides the earth from view…since they are too numerous" (Numbers 22:5-6). The contrast between the two accounts makes it impossible to know if the Israelites were frightening or frightened.

Both the Heisenberg Principle utilized in modern physics and the Halo Effect documented by social science are offered as proof that there is no such thing as objectivity because both principles hold that the scrutiny of an observer always affects what is being observed and, therefore, invariably influences experimental outcomes. For that reason, in Shelach Lecha, the spies' account of themselves and of the land that they explored were colored by their internal states, a flawed perspective, reminiscent of the anonymous poem about two frogs who fell into a can of cream:

Two frogs fell into a can of cream, Or so I've heard it told. The sides of the can were shiny and steep, The cream was deep and cold. O, what's the use, croaked number one, 'Tis fate; no help's around. Good-bye my friend! Good-bye, sad world — And weeping still, he drowned. But number two of sterner stuff, Dog-paddled in surprise, The while he wiped his milky face And dried his milky eyes. I'll swim awhile at least, he said — Or so I've heard he said. It really wouldn't help the world If one more frog were dead. An hour or two he kicked and swam, Not once he stopped to mutter But kicked and kicked and swam and kicked Then hopped out, via butter.

Any student of the Torah would do well to picture the optimistic and pessimistic frogs when studying the lesson provided by the account of the spies and their fears that incapacitated them. Both present a great deal of food for thought.