5756 - #19


Objectivity and Assumptions


Bamidbar 14:27 refers to the ten spies as an eida hara'ah, an evil congregation. From this verse, T.B. Megilla 23b derives the ruling that a minyan, the minimum requirement for a congregation, demands ten Jews. The term eida relates to the word eidut, testimony. In a court, it is the agreed presentation of two people that creates the halachic reality. The same truth applies to a congregation. Most basically, a community is defined by shared common assumptions.

The application of the term eida to the spies is most revealing. Perception leans heavily on conception; and the spies' report depended greatly on what they had previously concluded for themselves. Indeed the spies did attempt objectivity yet objectivity itself is built upon unchallenged widely held assumptions (a priori). It is this point, that even fact depends on common assumptions or beliefs, that is essential in understanding the nature of the spies' sin. Ultimately, our challenge is not simply to attempt objectivity but to choose responsibly our underlying assumptions and evaluations.

"They went up into the Negev and to Chevron, where Achiman, Sheshai, and Talmai -- the offspring of the giant, lived. Chevron was built seven years before Zoan of Egypt. They reached the wadi Eshkol and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes which they carried on a staff between two people..." (Bamidbar 13:22,23)

The effect of this description is quite clear: very tall people live in Chevron; Chevron is ancient; and enormous grapes can be found in Nachal Eshkol. And, yet, the Torah directly says none of this. Age, height, and size can be declared objectively only if assumptions are shared. The Torah, here, wishes to render explicit an implicit process. Each description first makes clear our assumed point of reference and, only then, in relation to this point, is the description fixed.

1. We all know the giant Anak -- Achiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, who inhabit Chevron, are born of him.

2. We regard the city of Zoan as an ancient city -- the city of Chevron is seven years older than Zoan.

3. We know the weight which requires two carriers and a staff between them -- a cluster of grapes from Nachal Eshkol would weigh as much.

The truth that all descriptive language employs assumptions is, thereby, proclaimed in the opening passages of Shlach. The spies were, ultimately, deemed culpable for their report was constructed upon unacceptable axioms. They absented the assumption of G-d and His Glory from their equation.

The commentators find it most difficult to detect the signs of rebellion in the spies' opening statement. The initial report can be read as a fair and non-inciteful description of, simply, what was seen. Even the infamous efes (however) which the Ramban designates as the singular improper statement (as it bends away from the facts), can be read more innocently: "The land is rich and fertile... nevertheless it will not be easy to conquer because strong people live there." If, apparently, the opening words of the spies were free of inference, what prompted Caleb to perceive a problem, to agitate, to declare: "Let us go up."?

The evil tone of the calumny which the spies spread among the people was, in fact, manifest. They were objective. The people heard objectively. They arrived at logical conclusions based upon an investigation of their perceptions. However, this was an objectivity based upon foreign assumptions. Their objectivity should have included the Divine. The absence of the Divine is what allowed them to state chazak hu mimenu, that the inhabitants were stronger. The word strong is ultimately descriptive and in need of a reference. The spies' objectivity entailed a description of this world exclusive of the Divine. They judged the world of spirituality, of G-d's intervention, a distinguishable level of existence, not for human assumptions, not for the world of objectivity. Caleb's retort is exact: the reality of G-d is certainly integral to the objective, natural world.

Caleb and Yehoshua exhort the people: "Remove their shadow from off of you." Two people stand opposite each other, in equal light -- and it is impossible to detect domination. Domination is an interpretation or assessment which we apply to the situation and it is symbolized by the shadow. Theposition of the sun (the assumption) creates the shadow. A shadow is a consistent thing but we can change our stance and we can move outside of the shadow's oppression. If our assumptions conclude a covenantal alliance with G-d, then we will re-structure the scene and remove ourselves from the shadow.

The verb latur, to scout, functions in two distinct contexts at the beginning and then at the conclusion of this parsha. It is used to describe the action of the spies; and it is written into the section on tzitzit: "You should not wander after your heart and your eyes (Bamidbar 15:39)." Rashi relates the two points; let us build on this connection. The significance of reality is bound to perception. Perception itself implies the application of basic presuppositions and beliefs to reality. It is a false promise that offers a point of chaste objectivity from where to view reality, from which to decide what to believe. There is no view from nowhere. This may indeed be the sin of the spies for they toured the land without viewing it squarely from within their faith, from within G-d's promise. Instead of their interpretation of the land growing out of their most basic tenants of trust -- they attempted sterile objectivity, their impressions of the land arose from a foreign understanding, and their faith was altered when it should have altered. It is precisely against such an astray that the Torah warns us: "Do not wander after your heart and your eyes." Chazal teach us that this is the crime of heresy. It is in order to protect against just such a temptation that we place tzitzit on the four corners of our garments. The four corners suggest the arba amot which surround a person as his personal halachic space. Perhaps the tallit katan defines the cognitive space within which a Jew should manoeuvre. When we travel about and interpret life, we should do so from within the context of our common assumptions and belief system. If we travel to the very edges of this awareness, the tzitzit will remind us of the shared assumptions of our eida beyond which we part company with our people.

Rabbi David Debow

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