a colorful illustration of two men hefting a large branch with a large bunch of grapes on it
The Israelite spies return from Canaan laden with a bounty of grapes by Richard Andre, 1884

The Torah’s persuasive warning against confirmation bias

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

Numbers 13:1-15:41

This week’s Torah portion tells the story of the 12 spies that Moses sent to scout out the land of Israel. The story is regarded as one one of the biggest tragedies in our Biblical history. It is worth delving into the details in the hope of finding meaningful guidance for our own lives.

From the outset, it seems that there is some confusion as to who instigated the sending of spies in the first place. “Hashem spoke to Moses saying, ‘Send men for yourself and they will scout out the Land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Israel’” (Numbers 13:1). From the opening line, it seems like this is a directive from G-d Himself.

However, in the Book of Deuteronomy, we are giving a different account of what happened. “All of you approached me and said, ‘Let us send men in front of us and they will spy out the land and bring word back to us” (Deut. 1:22). The speaker here is Moses as he addresses the nation with rebuke and admonition. Moses tells us that it was the people who suggested the sending of spies in the first place. The Sages understand that when the text in our parshah reads “Send men for yourself,” it is hinting that G-d is allowing them to send spies but not commanding that they do so.

To what end were the spies sent? It seems that the people had one purpose, but Moses had a very different purpose in mind.

Moses was hoping that the men would go and bring back word about what an amazing place they were about to enter. They were supposed to act as the salespeople who would rally the people and inspire them to conquer the land. They were even instructed to bring back samples of the fruit that they found there in order to demonstrate what an incredible land they had found.

In Deuteronomy, when Moses recounts the events he uses a different verb to describe their mission: lachpor, which means to spy. It means to really dig into a place and search for vulnerabilities the way that an army would do in preparation for battle.

The men were looking to assess the military situation since they knew that they were going to have to take the land by force. That was not Moses’s agenda. He understood well that asking the spies to evaluate the prospect of a victory in war on human terms was not a good idea. Hashem had promised them a triumph. That was sufficient for Moses. It was not going to conform to the norms of battle. It was going to be a supernatural event.

Ten of the spies returned with a very negative report and caused national trauma. G-d was furious, and the result is that He punished that entire generation for their lack of trust by telling them that they will not be allowed into the land.

The spies went wrong in their initial assessment, but according to the prophet Jeremiah, there is more to it than just that.

Jeremiah is the author of the scroll of Eicha, or Lamentations. Jews all over the world sit on the floor listening to the scroll on Tisha B’Av. It is a descriptive account of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

It is also written as an acrostic. The first chapter follows the order of the Aleph-Bet. The next three chapters do the same with one glaring anomaly. There are two letters that are out of order. The letter peh precedes the letter ayin. One might assume that perhaps the author just skipped kindergarten and missed those letters on that day and got them wrong. But he got it right in the first chapter, so it must be intentional.

It is also hard to point to a simple editing error since it happens three times with the next three chapters. The Sages ask, “For what reason did they place the peh before the ayin?” (Eikhah Rabbah 2:20) The answer they give is that it recalls the spies who put their peh (Hebrew for mouth) before their ayin (Hebrew for eye).

What Jeremiah is hinting through the letters is that they spoke and then they saw. Today we call that confirmation bias. They had decided on a negative attitude and therefore could only see the negative. We read this scroll on the 9th of Av as a remembrance of what started all the calamities that we mourn as a nation.

If there is any take-away for us from the episode it should be that we should work on being careful to be objective. In our time, we have a barrage of information that comes to us from all sources. It would be great if we could find a way to be objective in our gathering of information that informs our decisions.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto. Rabbi Felsen is also on the board of J. The Jewish News of Northern California.