This week’s parashah focuses on the second of the Israelites’ two most devastating moments of collective failure in the desert — the mass breakdown after the scouts overstepped their jurisdiction for reconnaissance by insisting that the land was uninhabitable for the Israelites. Before everything goes haywire, the Torah introduces the scouts by name and tribe, and describes them, saying that “they were all people, leaders of the children of Israel”– “כֻּלָּם אֲנָשִׁים רָאשֵׁי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵמָּה” (Bemidbar/Numbers 13:3). Why this extraneous clause, “they were all people/kulam anashim“? The Torah could have just said that “they were all leaders of the children of Israel/כלם ראשי בני ישראל”. Medieval commentators point out that this word signifies the high social status of these twelve men. Rashi says that the word “people” or “men” is “terminology for importance”. Rav Obadiah Sforno comments that it denotes “men of valor”, and draws our attention to two other Biblical verses (I Sh’muel 26:15 and I Kings 2:2) in which King David uses that term crudely, to indicate that being a “man” or a “person” implies boldness, power, and ability to complete one’s assigned task, akin to the more contemporary, “big man on campus” or “be a man”. The Torah is telling us that the scouts chosen to survey the land, the scouts who freaked out, exceeded their charge, and incited a revolt among the people, weren’t random tribal representatives, but were people. They were men, in the non-feminist connotations of that charged term. They were big shots, leaders, makhers.
Why does the Torah emphasize that the scouts were big shots? The Zohar records a fascinating midrash teasing out what might be hinted at in this emphasized clause:
“‘They were all people’: All of them were worthy and were leaders of Israel, but they took bad counsel for themselves. Why did they take this counsel? They reasoned, ‘If Israel will be brought up to the land, we will be removed from leadership and Moshe will appoint other leaders, for we are worthy in the desert to be leaders, but in the land, we will not be worthy’. Because they took this bad counsel for themselves, they died, along with everyone who took their word (Zohar III; Bemidbar, Sh’lach-Lekha, 156b).
The scouts emerged into positions of leadership in the context of tribal nomadic life. Entering the land, they quickly saw their future before them and felt outclassed. With their nomadically appropriate skill set, they saw everyone in the land as overwhelming giants: “And there we saw the Nephilim [fallen angels], descendants of giants from the Nephilim! We were in our own eyes like grasshoppers, and so were we in their eyes!” (Bemidbar/Numbers 13:33). A midrash imagines what it was about this statement that crossed a line for God (Tanhuma Sh’lach 7):
“‘We were in our own eyes like grasshoppers’ — The Blessed, Holy One said, ‘I let that one go for them; but [when they said], ‘And so were we in their eyes,’ I became angry. Do you know how I made you look in their eyes? Who told you that you didn’t look like angels in their eyes?’”
The scouts — big-shot, powerful leaders — were terrified of the future. Bereft of imagination of a promised future prosperity, they let their imaginations run wild with fantasies of their own smallness. They aroused and drew out a communal death wish and panic to turn backward, to Egypt (Bemidbar/Numbers 14:1-4). As Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes:
“Fear in a situation of war is a rational emotion….But the reaction that the Spies arouse in the people is not entirely rational. The people weep all night, they wish they had died in Egypt, ‘or else in this wilderness’ (Num. 14:2). Evidently, they would prefer to be dead than to face the danger of death. They both fear death and wish for it, deciding to return to Egypt, the very site of death” (Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers, 2015, p. 121).
Why did powerful leaders fail so profoundly? And why does the Torah introduce this tragedy by emphasizing their big-shot status? I’d like to suggest that the scouts failed to imagine future life in new circumstances not in spite of their social status but because of it. When the Torah introduces them by emphasizing that they were big-shots, it’s ominous foreshadowing. The scouts reflected the failure of imagination that is all too typical among leaders. The Zohar’s imagined reconstruction of what must have been their undoing is learned all too well from observation of human behavior. What kinds of powerful leaders shut down at the prospects of new realities? Those leaders whose identities are wrapped up with being leaders, who understand their own capabilities as the sum total of what is possible. The scouts could not adjust to the idea of either adapting to new knowledge or retiring and passing the baton, completing their public service in the context in which their skill set was useful and gracefully transitioning to others with different, newly appropriate skills. If they couldn’t see how to make life in the land happen, then it must be impossible.
The scouts emerged into positions of leadership in the context of tribal nomadic life. As my teacher, Rav David Bigman, points out, this might even be reflected by the fact that several of their names are names of animals (Kalev ben Yefuneh: kelev = dog; Gadi ben Susi: sus = horse; ‘Amiel ben Gemali: gamal = camel). The big-shots were stuck in the past, the life of Egypt and the desert. A different, better, future might be liberatory to the people, but it would be the end of their leadership, which they had come to identify as the life of the people. They were stuck on leadership, not community service. And like so many after them, they clung to their familiar gilded ghetto, rather than believing in, and doing their part in accepting, an unfamiliar liberation. This story insistently affirms that context matters, that managers who manage in relation to the context with which they are familiar, rather than the one that faces them, can bring devastation to the community, devastation that obstructs liberation.
This midrash is about the incentive structure in community leadership. It is about every time someone thinks first about what kind of leadership job they want or feels entitled to hold and only then about what kind of organization they can find or found that would justify that. It’s about people at the top of a pyramid who blame those in the rank-and-file for deserting when they evolve and when new needs arise that aren’t in their wheelhouse.
Liberation and public service are definitionally in battle with people like the Zohar’s conception of the scouts, who tighten their death-grip on their status. The scouts are everywhere, in government, in corporations, in the military, in non-profit organizations, even in social justice movements. How many minority populations, exploited by the majority, get further exploited by their community representatives who figure out a way to get enough coins tossed at them to manage the ghetto, rather than undermining the causes of its exploitation?
Rav Bigman even explains the apparently random and unrelated mitzvot that are recorded immediately following the spies story as thematically related and an immediate Divine rebuke of the culture that enabled the spies. Once we enter the land, our sacrifices must include not only animals, the domain of nomadic life, but henceforth, every sacrifice must also include produce from landed agriculture (15:1-13). Henceforth, non-tribal resident aliens, another reality of the future, are covered by the same laws as tribal, landed citizens (15:14-16). These mitzvot are emphatic affirmations that the rules and frames of reference of nomadic life will be left behind in the desert. Yes, the paradigm will change.
So, why is it so hard? Why do people in leadership roles have such a hard time evolving or passing the baton? The process of reframing and adjusting is scary because of the unknown and because those currently in authority may cease to be qualified for their own jobs. It’s also scary because people may hold many different, competing views of just what the new paradigm is that is called for. Rowdy dispute forces everyone to acknowledge that many of us are probably wrong; consensus around yesterday’s paradigm allows us the delusion that we’re all right, even though we’re almost certainly all wrong. This parasha holds a mirror to us, exposing our consensus as fool’s gold.
“They were all people”: By pinning this insight into the story on such a general word — “people” (but let’s get real, “people” in this failed model of big-shot leadership almost always means or implies “men”) — perhaps the Zohar is signaling that this tragic flaw in the scouts’ leadership thinking is basic to human nature: people possessing privilege do not easily relinquish it, and since privilege is gendered, this toxic leadership flaw is gendered.
Our Sages do create a potential countertext. The scouts were “people” or “men” in the culture of leadership modeled by King David, who, on his deathbed, told his son and successor, King Solomon to “be strong and be a man” (I Kings 2:2). Bible scholars understand that these words, as written, immediately introduce his capricious, Godfather-like, instructions to take care of business and dispose of old enemies (I Kings 2:5-9). That’s what a toxic model of leadership did to David, much as it did to Michael Corleone. But our Biblical text inserts two verses in between “be strong and be a man/person” and the revenge charge, a countertext of what being a “person” with responsibility should be about, in contrast to what it was for David by the end of his life: observing Torah thoroughly (I Kings 2:3-4). It is responsibility that preserves one’s claim to leadership. That’s what it means to fulfill Hillel’s teaching in Pirkei Avot (2:5): “In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person.”
Today’s old guard leaders were once the young bucks, the hopes for the future. Will we be different?
An earlier version of this devar torah appeared previously on www.jewschool.com.