The story of the scouts’ exploration of the land of Israel that forms the basis of this week’s parasha concerns what we see (our vision) and how we see (our perception). This is made clear by the conclusion of the parasha in the maftir. (This maftir is taken into the liturgy as the third paragraph of the Shema. Alas, in most Progressive siddurim this paragraph is abridged and truncated, obfuscating its import in our liturgy. The important Torah verses under consideration herein have been removed from Reform’s version of the Shema. These verses form the basis for the practice of wearing a tallit with tzitzit.).
“The Lord said to Moses as follows: ‘Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge . . ..’”
The Hebrew word that is here translated as “do not follow” (after your heart and eyes) is the same word that is used at the beginning of the parasha and translated as “scout out” (the land). The Torah wants us to learn how to use our eyes on a daily basis, knowing how we used our eyes in scouting out the land.
Analysis of the story of the scouts reveals that their major problem was not what the saw, but how they perceived it. Based on Moses’ different recollection about the incident of the scouts recorded in Deuteronomy, the tradition debates whether sending the scouts was an act of obedience to or rebellion against God. In either event, all the commentators agree that the major transgression of the scouts was not as much what they saw but how they perceived what they saw, spreading fear through the community of Israel.
At first, they report accurately about what they saw: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey….” As they continue, however, they reveal their fear-based perception: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size . . . we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” From this one verse in Torah comes so much teaching about how our eyes can mislead us. We often compare ourselves to others, whether in terms of our physical appearance, intellect or emotional capacity. Those comparisons can lead us to belittle ourselves; we then assume that others see us in that light as well. What we perceive “out there” influences our self-awareness, precisely the opposite of what the Torah hopes for us in a faith based system.
Hearing the scouts’ negative assessments, Caleb and Joshua exhorted the whole Israelite community: “The land that we traversed is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, He will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against the Lord.” Their perception of the outside world is guided by an inner faith. Ideally we know that from positive self-awareness comes mastery of the world and of life, entry into “the Promised Land.”
Most of us, when reading these stories, tend to identify with the heroes, whether Moses, Aaron and Miriam, or in this story, Joshua and Caleb. We distance ourselves from the fears and foibles of the other scouts and also from the nameless masses who panicked when hearing their report. But are we consistently so heroic in our daily life? How often do we let our personal faith and self-mastery guide our perception of what we see? What do we choose to notice in that outer world that becomes our field of vision, those things that shape and influence us? In reality there are few Calebs and Joshuas. Because we so often fail in our personal scouting missions, the Torah encourages us to look at those fringes and recall the commandments of the Lord and observe them. Judaism, like other spiritual and religious traditions, teaches that discipline develops the ability to see the world from the inside out, not the other way around. Perception and vision are inextricably linked.