Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mobbed. Dealing with strong community opposition - Shelach

I sometimes find it challenging to deal with the tension of holding a particular position when people that I feel connected with strongly hold a different view. I recognise that as a Rabbi and bridge builder this is my obligation and privilege, what can my tradition tell me about this challenge?

Seeking Evidence after loss of faith
Moses led a people who had blindly followed him into the desert[1] but were struggling to maintain their faith in God’s plan to take them to the Promised Land. Moses finds himself approached by his nation[2], elders and youth all mixed together, the young pushing the elders, the elders pushing the leaders[3] all demanding that spies be sent to investigate the land that God had promised.

Reluctant approval
Although sending the spies’ mission technically had divine approval[4] and the ideas was ‘good in the eyes of Moses’[5], commentary tells a different story. “When they first approached Moses he did not want (it), he told them “God has already assured us”, the Jews said that the Nations know we are coming and were hiding their money (and the reason they wished to send spies was to find out about the treasures)… this way Moses fell into their trap”[6].

God tells Moses, “Send men for yourself,…[7]”, do this if you want to but not by God’s command[8]. “If it was from Me, we would not be sending them as they (the Jews) should have relied on Me”[9]. There is a hint here that sending the spies might be good for Moses (yourself) because it will prolong his life as the Jews wander the desert for 40 years as a punishment, but it will not be good for the people[10].

Destined to fail
The mission seems to have been designed by God with the expectation of failure. The spies must be leaders, so they will be considered important by the Jews “so that they should not say (after it all goes wrong) if we had sent important men, their hearts would not have melted, (or) they would not have slandered[11]. Moses also has a premonition of the risks. He changed Joshua’s name from the original Hoshea[12] so that God should save him from the counsel of the (other) spies[13].

Character of the mission
There is also some semantics at work here about what the nature of the mission. Three different words[14] are used to describe the work of the spies, “V’yaturu”[15] ויתרו  , V’yachpru[16] ויחפרו  and Vayraglu[17] וירגלו .

When Moses recounts the Jews disorderly approach to Moses the word is V’yachpru, which is related to the word חרפה disgrace, and find reasons not to go to the land[18].  It can be related to לחפור to dig and search for hidden things[19], the excuse that tricked Moses into thinking this was not about doubting God.  The word God uses when He gives grudging approval to Moses for the mission is V’yaturu, which means simply to explore. The words used to describe what the spies actually did is referred to as וירגלו Vayraglu[20] which has associations with maligning[21], gossip and telling lies about the land[22], although variation of the word “V’Yaturu[23] are also used. Neither of these words says anything about the treasure hunt it was ostensibly about[24].  

Defusing the pressure by caving in
Moses had hoped to defuse the situation by agreeing to the demand and that when they see his confidence in allowing them to check out the land they would trust him and drop their demand[25]. Instead they call his bluff. Moses admits to his agreeing to the mission in his reflection in Deuteronomy, but his reason for agreeing was based on the way they approached him and the fact that “all of you agreed about this[26].

Crown Heights Riots and the alleged ‘cave-in’, “Let them vent their rage”
In preparing this I thought of another alleged ‘cave in’, that until last Saturday night, I believed had occurred during the Crown Heights Riots in August 1991. I had flown back from Australia to NY only to learn that an Australian Jew, Yankel Rosenbaum was murdered by a mob of black youth in the neighbourhood that I grew up in. This followed the tragic death of a black child named Gavin Cato, in a car accident involving a Jewish driver. The whole community was shaken with violence and a feeling of terror. I got off an international flight, came home, but left town within hours. Almost a week later, when I returned, there was still broken glass on the streets. Mayor David Dinkins, who happened to be New York’s first black mayor at the time, was believed to have said of the black rioters “let them vent their rage”.

The accusation still stands as fact in the Wikipedia entry on the Crown Heights riots[27] and is claimed to be based on. But I learned when I began to researched this and read a summary of the government initiated report[28] that the report found that although Dinkins failed in many respcets, it determined that there was no evidence to support the most extreme charges that the Mayor had instructed the police to let marauding youths "vent" their rage. It is sad to only find out 20 years later that I believed a discredited accusation. Perhaps I was also swept away with “group sentiment”. On the other hand there must have been other “leaders” who fanned the flames and told angry young mobs what they wanted to hear. They stand condemned.

An Insider silences the mob (at least temporarily)
In contrast to “leaders” who follow their followers like dogs who appear to lead as they run ahead of their master but are always looking over their shoulders[29], Caleb stands as a role model of standing up to the mob. “Caleb quieted the people for Moses, he said “we will go up, and inherit the land, as we can do it[30]. He managed to get people’s attention, because he pretended to be on the side of the mob. “Is this all the son of Amram (Moses) did?!” he called out. The people expected more denigration of Moses so they became quiet to hear Caleb.  Then Caleb said, “He took us out of Egypt, he split the sea for us, and fed us the Manna, if he said ‘make ladders and ascent to the sky’, would we not listen to him[31]?!”

Caleb is praised as having a “different spirit[32] to the other spies. Many years later Caleb reflects on being “40 years old when Moses the servant of God sent me…and I responded as in my heart[33].  Joining the dots commentary suggests that he spoke what was in his heart but this was different to what came out of his mouth in his conversations with the other spies[34]. “It appears that when he was with them, until they arrived back to the camp he agreed with them so that they won’t kill him[35].  Having preserved his status as a member of the group, he was later able to challenge its thinking. In the end he was unable to persuade the community, they persisted in their view, but he took a stand for what was right.

We see clearly the difficulty of the leader to stare down the mob but also how opportunities are sometimes there right from the start to read between the lines that caving in to the demands is essentially a bad idea. We see the temptation to tactically yield to the mob in a small way, in the hope that it will come right in the end. We also see the great value of an insider staring down the mob and the need not to squander “insider” status by showing your cards too early, but rather to take a stand at the right time. This does not make it all easy, but it is useful to understand the dynamic, the challenges and that there is a way through, some of the time at least. 

[1] Jeremiah 2:2 “I remember for you the affection of your youth, the love of your espousals; how you went after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown”
[2] Deuteronomy 1:22
[3] Rashi to Deuteronomy 1:22
[4] Numbers 13:2
[5] Deuteronomy 1:23
[6] Yalkut Shimoni 742
[7] Numbers 13:2
[8] Rashi
[9] Bchor Shor, Rabbi Joseph (born Circa 1140 Northern France)
[10] Klei Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aharon Lunschitz, 1550-1619 Poland)  
[11] Bchor Shor
[12] Numbers
[13] Talmud Sotah 34b and Rashi to Numbers 13:16, alternative explanations are offered for the name change, 1) as a security measure because Joshua had been a minister of the army in the war against Amalek, so that he not be recognised (Tur), or that the name change had not happened at this time and was unrelated (Bchor Shor).
[14] Klei Yakar on Numbers 13:2
[15] Numbers 13:2
[16] Deuteronomy 1:22
[17] Deuteronomy 1:24
[18] Talmud Sotah 34b and Klei Yakar
[19] Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 1:22
[20] Deuteronomy 1:24
[21] Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel (Hillel's most distinguished pupil Talmud Sukkah, 28a- last century BC)  and Pirush Yonatan on Deuteronomy 1:24
[22] Klei Yakar
[23] Numbers 13:21, 25, 32
[24] Ohr Hachayim on Deuteronomy 1:24
[25] Rashi on Deuteronomy 1:20
[26] Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 1:24
[28] The report was overseen by Richard H. Girgenti, the state's Director of Criminal Justice. Some might argue that the report was commissioned by the democrat led state government, I think Director of Criminal Justice  must have has a significant degree of independence as can be seen by fact that the report was generally very critical of Dinkins.
[29] Talmud Sanhedrin 97a as interpreted by Rabbi Gershon Stern, Yalkut Hagershuni, quoted in Insights a Talmudic Treasury Weiss, R. Saul, (1990) Feldheim, Jerusalem/New York, p.301
[30] Numbers
[31] Talmud Sotah 35a and Rashi
[32] Numbers
[33] Joshua 14:7
[34] Midrash Tanchuma, and Rashi
[35] Radak on Joshua 14:7

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