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Mad as Hell

A Torah portion of cries, spies, and revolutions on the rise

Liel Leibovitz
June 19, 2009
(Courtesy Library of Congress, Matson Collection.)
(Courtesy Library of Congress, Matson Collection.)

As throngs of Iranians take to the streets to question the validity of the recent election in their country, allow me to add one more name to the list of men in contention for the Islamic republic’s top job: Woody Allen.

Young, reform-minded Iranians can ask for no better leader. They should adopt as their battle cry Allen’s famous quip, that 90 percent of life is just showing up.

I know, I know, it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” or “Hasta la victoria siempre,” but when it comes to the green-clad youth flooding the town squares of Persia, no slogan could be more poignant. Although it is too early to tell just what is going on in Iran, one thing is clear: wonderful things can happen if only one opened one’s door and stepped out to the street in protest.

I doubt that many Iranians, still governed by the crushing will of the mullahs, will be paying much attention to the weekly Torah portion. Pity. This week, the parasha is all about another rebellious people, the Israelites, who learn a priceless lesson in politics.

As the story begins, one is inclined to feel sorry for our exhausted ancestors. There they are, in the endless desert, with aching feet and doubting minds, when God instructs Moses to dispatch twelve of his finest fellows to see firsthand that greatly promised land. The spies hop over to Canaan, and return 40 days later. The look on their faces alone is enough to alert the people that there’s trouble in their promised paradise.

“The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature,” shrieks one of the returned spies. “There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”

The Israelites, never ones to miss an opportunity for some operatic moaning, take their cue. Immediately after hearing these reports, the people begin to wail: “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert. Why does the Lord bring us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and children will be as spoils. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?”

Hold on, say two of Moses’s emissaries, Joshua and Caleb. Don’t turn around quite yet: the land is “an exceedingly good land,” with milk and honey and all that. And those giants are nothing compared to the glory of God, who would surely deliver them to us, you know, what with being His chosen people and all.

But Jews, historically, never really knew what to do with good news, and the congregation turns to the two cockeyed optimists and threatens to pelt them with stones.

Watching these shenanigans unfurl, God is not amused. Why not kill all of them, he suggests to Moses, and build a new, improved, and kvetch-free Jewish people? Moses, thankfully, turns down this kind offer, and God settles on a milder punishment: as the entire congregation failed to trust the Lord that the land is good, it shall never see it. The Israelites are doomed to wander in the desert for 40 years—one year for every day the spies spent in Canaan—until they all pass away and a new generation, free of sin, is ready to inherit and inhabit its home.

At first reading, the Israelites’ qualms with God may appear wholly justified. He had, after all, just appointed them as his elected few, and could have just as easily made them all disappear from Sinai in a cloud of purple smoke and reappear seconds later in downtown Jerusalem. That, the Israelites might have been forgiven for thinking, is how a god should roll.

Not our God. He is a Do-It-Yourself kind of deity. And when the Israelites balk, saying that there are too many other nations already occupying Canaan and that some consist of freakishly large men and that the whole thing is just too damn hard, He explodes.

More often than not, this story is taken as a lesson in the importance of faith. Joshua and Caleb, goes the perceived wisdom, believed that the Lord’s promises would come true, and that drove them to see Canaan not as it really was—a tiny and troubled country with too many folks fighting for too little space—but as God promised it would be, overflowing with earthly delights.

But faith may be beside the point. As in the anecdote of the pauper praying at the wall one more time, buying the ticket may be what it’s all about.

No one, perhaps, said it better than Michael Walzer. In his masterful Exodus and Revolution, he explained the story simply. “The land would never be all that it could be until its new inhabitants were all that they should be,” he wrote. In other words, it isn’t about believing, but about doing. The land itself is ordinary; it would be made special, promised, divine solely by the merit of its new inhabitants. If the Israelites took charge and obeyed God’s laws and set up a just and progressive society—the society that emerges from the intricate set of rules God had given his people at Sinai—the nation they would create would emerge as a beacon to all others, a true city on a hill. But if they sat and groaned and waited for readymade glory, all they would find is a desolate and divided strip of land, no better than Egypt and perhaps much worse.

It’s a stunning vision, and one we all too frequently forget. I wish there was a way to condense it to 140 characters and tweet it to Tehran. It would go something like this: 90 percent of life may be showing up, but it’s the other 10 percent, doing the right thing, that’s the hardest.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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