Tell me if this rings a bell:
“The LORD said to Moses, ‘Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites.’”
If you didn’t happen to study your Torah portion last week, and you haven’t memorized Numbers 13:14, let me remind you of what I learned in shul. The Israelites had been wandering around in the desert for about 18 months when God apparently decided it was time for them to take over the land of Canaan. Moses, as instructed, picked a leader from each of the 12 ancestral tribes and sent them off to case the place and report back on the likely success of an Israelite invasion.
Upon returning, two of the scouts, Caleb and Joshua, gave Moses a green light: “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it,” they explained. But the other 10 demurred. “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are,” they warned. “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size… We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”
Next thing you know, the Israelites who had been waiting anxiously for this report are in a panic. They “grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, ‘If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert!’” Since God wanted an invasion, this really pissed him off, and Moses and Aaron had to talk him out of taking it out on the Israelites then and there. Things were touch and go for a while. Remember, “The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
The Israelites are spared but condemned to wander around the desert for the next 38 years to die off and be replaced by a less wimpy generation. The 10 pessimistic scouts are “struck down and died of a plague.” Only Caleb and Joshua are allowed, eventually, to enter the Promised Land.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, coincidentally, I came across a discussion of this very story in a book called The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, in which author Wendy Mogel attempts to apply the wisdom of the Torah and the Talmud to issues of childrearing.
Mogel makes a comparison between the bad spies and our tabloid media. I thought it rather brilliant: “Broadcasters who exaggerate danger are like the biblical spies fearful of venturing toward an unknown land. When media broadcasters are effective, parents start to feel like grasshoppers unable to defend their children against being swallowed up by the land.”
By way of example, Mogel notes that for all the terror that parents routinely pass along to their children about the dangers of Halloween, according to a study by sociologist Joel Best, not a single death or serious injury from Halloween candy was reported between 1958 and 1985. Any number of similar studies demonstrate that most Americans rate the threat of violence to be much higher than it really is because television news is filled with it, even during periods of rapidly declining crime statistics.
Happening upon the same passage the next morning, together with the accompanying commentary, I was reminded of those in the media who supported the Bush administration’s campaign to deceive us into invading Iraq. In a 12th-century midrash, the philosopher Nachmonidies explains that the Hebrew describing the incident imply that the 10 scouts “invented a lie” concerning the land of Canaan, whereby they succeeded in bringing terror and despair into the hearts of the whole community.
Leave aside for a moment the fact that the Israelites were looking to invade Canaan just as Bush and Cheney were looking to invade Iraq. After all, Biblical literalism is the scourge of small and twisted minds like our president’s. Look instead at cause and effect. The leaders of 10 of the 12 tribes were entrusted with the fate of their people. But for reasons of fear, mendacity, and self-gain, they frightened them with lies that resulted in their near self-destruction and their loss of all positive movement for at least a generation. (There is no mention anywhere in the Bible of what took place during these 38 years.)
One moral of this parable is that God—whatever that word may mean—helps those who help themselves. In our case, we are slowly freeing ourselves from the grip of the hysteria inspired by our own equivalent of the leaders of the 10 tribes—the neoconservative war-planners and their followers in the punditocracy and mainstream media. We are just beginning to realize that our Calebs and Joshuas—who had the vision to resist the group hysteria that the administration and its allies did so much to incite during the prewar period—deserve the opportunity to lead us out of our desert of paranoia and self-contradiction and into a Promised Land of rational behavior toward other nations and our own citizens.
At least the Bible tells me so…
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress. His weblog, “Altercation,” appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation, and his seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.
Research assistance: Tim Fernholz