Giovanni Lanfranco's "Moses and the Messengers from Canaan"
Giovanni Lanfranco's "Moses and the Messengers from Canaan"

Back then I did not, but today I stand up against prejudice and fear

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Sh’lach Lecha

Numbers 13:1-15:41

One winter afternoon in 1990, during my shift as a retail clerk at a Beverly Hills bookstore, an immaculately dressed man stood outside the shop. He had very dark skin. He checked his watch, looked up and down the street. The owner, his spouse, and two senior employees gathered to watch him through a two-way mirror in the office. Then they called the police.

While the owner spoke with the local squad station, the man outside did the unthinkable. He entered the shop, picked up a book and began reading the back cover. The owner, still on with the cops, cried into the phone, “He’s in the store!” At that fateful moment, the man’s friend drove up in a sports car. The would-be customer looked up, smiled and waved, put down the book, and exited the store to his companion’s waiting car. They drove away.

I have replayed that scene so many times over the last three decades. I was 20, old enough to know better. I’d been raised in a wonderfully diverse city by color-blind parents. But I didn’t challenge my elders when fear and prejudice invaded and paraded through that shop and could have led easily to disaster. To this day, I am unspeakably grateful that the police didn’t arrive before that innocent man’s friend did. That the only life changed forever that day was mine.

“Beware the eyes, for they lead you astray” is the thundering pronouncement of Sh’lach Lecha. First the “12 Spies” bring a catastrophic assessment of the prospects for conquering Canaan. They declare it bountiful but teeming with giants, and cast themselves as grasshoppers “in our own eyes, and thus we appeared in their eyes as well” (Numbers 13:33).

The parashah closes with the mitzvah to place fringes on our garments to be tethered to tradition, less likely to be misled by the “lustful yearnings of your hearts and eyes” (Numbers 15:38-39).

The sections appear unrelated at first, but they are inextricably linked by an extraordinary word dance. Moses sends men to scout out (ve’yaturu) the land with their eyes. The tzitzit (fringes) are commanded so that we will not be led astray (lo taturu) by our eyes. The result of relying on visual stimuli (real in the first case, potential in the second) is nothing less than “whoredom,” with the same Hebrew root “z-n-h” used in both parts of the parashah.      

Seeing may be believing, but what we believe may prove entirely untrustworthy or even blatantly false. “Eyewitness” accounts are notoriously, sometimes dangerously unreliable. Jewish tradition knew this, vehemently opposing any visual or iconic depiction of the Deity, and instead commanding us to open not our eyes but our ears, to “Hear, O Israel, that the Eternal is God, and God is One” (Deut. 6:4).

The spies not only saw everything out of proportion, they compounded it with the terrible sin of pretending to know what others saw, as well. The historic consequence was that they and their generation languished in the wilderness for the infamous 40 years, dying before reaching the Promised Land. In their inability to see themselves and others “in their right size,” they exhibited a massive failure of humility as taught by the Jewish tradition of Mussar, the cultivation of the “balanced soul.” The 10 spies were humble, but far too humble. They shrank away when they needed to rise to the challenge. They gave disproportionate power to others, sapping their own strength and initiative and sowing terror and self-doubt among their own people.

That’s what happens when we allow our eyes to get the best of us. In this  heart-wrenching chapter of human history, while we are felled by a blind, invisible virus, we again bear horrified witness to the results of pernicious racism that leads to certain people who wear a badge thinking they’re giants, and that people of color, particularly and to our eternal shame, black men and women, are grasshoppers to be crushed underfoot.

“Peace officers” who know far better violate the command to “not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Lev. 19:16).

Lawful protests that should and need to be waged turn violent at the hands of people (many desperate, and many just seizing the opportunity), who cut swaths of destruction like giants in old stories, and treat innocent business owners and inanimate but valuable property like grasshoppers to be dispatched at will. It’s utterly out of proportion. It feels utterly out of control.

I can’t apologize personally to the good man who was profiled so long ago and so wrongly. But I can try with all of my soul to not ever repeat that awful and unwarranted rush to judgment, to not be swept up in mindless group-think and to live by the teachings of my ancestors, who knew so well that human beings succumb all too often to the weakness of the eye.

We are not grasshoppers. We are not giants. We are human beings, all more or less the exact same size. We are blessed with the awareness and the chutzpah to say that we are, each of us, created in the Divine Image, that we all bleed red and cry salt tears, and that there is Divine Light in all creation. For God’s sake, and for the sake of all of our children, let’s not just say these words. Let’s start behaving like we believe it.


Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].