The story line is as follows: Chieftains from each tribe are sent to the land of Canaan for forty days to find out what kind of country it is and if the inhabitants are strong or weak. Canaan is full of different people, including the Anakites—giants. The majority of the scouts report that Canaan is a land of milk and honey and its produce is huge, but its people are powerful and its cities are fortified. (Numbers 13:27-28) In effect, the scouts report back to the Israelites that they could not defeat these giants because "we look like mere grasshoppers to them. If we fight them, we will be eaten alive." Only Joshua and Caleb have optimism and confidence and are calm. They assure the people that the land is good and tell them that if only they have faith, God will guide them to conquer and settle the land. The people are filled with anxiety and panic; they cry all night; they want to pelt Joshua and Caleb with stones. Their fear creates the impulse to violence. Rabbi Gunther Plaut discusses the morality of conquest on page 1,114 of The Torah: A Modern Commentary.
Although the morality of conquest is an eternal question of human history, I wish to turn my attention to the classic rabbinic notion that the pessimistic scouts sinned by spreading rumors and panic. (See Gleanings, pages 1,116-1,117: "Slander" and "The Real Sin.") The Talmud (Ta'anit 29a) says that the Jewish people mourned an entire night and that the weeping was fated to echo throughout Jewish history—a crying and a weeping for future generations. As Roger Kamenetz writes in The Jew in the Lotus, page 5, "Nervous is my religion." The assumption here is that pessimism is wrong and optimism is right. The pessimists were sinners while the optimists were heroes, and these definitions were transmitted from one generation to the next.
My point is that all the scouts were right, not just the optimists Joshua and Caleb. Together the pessimists and optimists present the realistic picture of what Israel was facing: They were the first immigrants in our mythic history.
Transition, migration, resettlement/conquest, radical changes in the structuring of society are all challenges that require intelligent leadership; otherwise, chaos and violence might readily prevail. The Israelites were in the middle of a huge migration experience that included fear and optimism, intelligent moments of leadership and dangerous times filled with violence.
Twentieth-century parallels are obvious. Although many peoples have undergone great migration and transitions, we have special concerns about our Jewish experiences. When I think about my ancestors and the courage it took for them to leave Eastern Europe, I imagine that they must have been anxious—full of hope and fear. Thank God my great-grandparents were able to withstand their justifiable fear and anxiety about immigrating to America. I'm sure that their trepidation was balanced by the belief that the United States would be a salvation. But think of the reality they faced: sweatshops, unsafe working conditions, tenements on the Lower East Side, disdain from the uptown Jews, the heartache expressed in "Bintel Brief," the trauma of dislocation or premature separation from family members who stayed in the old country. I may want to emphasize their optimism and courage but I find it more useful to see the whole picture in order to gain a better understanding of their experience. My great-grandparents' fears during their immigration experience were certainly realistic, just as the scouts' assessment of the dangers of the impending conquest or resettlement of Canaan was obviously realistic. The rabbis' calling it sinful is unhelpful when we interpret the scouts' experience in modern terms. It's more helpful to understand that although people's fears are justified, it is wonderful when they can still listen to follow the voice of optimism and take decisive action.
In addition, panic and fear can be wise teachers. Many children who survived the Nazi period were called "hidden children." Hidden child Susan Blum Bendor tells the following story about her family in Budapest in 1944. Her mother had sent most of their money to a farmer in the country so that he could add an annex to his home in which Susan's family could hide. As they packed to move, Susan's almost nine-year-old brother began to sob uncontrollably with anxiety. He was inconsolable, and they knew that if they could not calm him down, they would attract too much attention during the trip. Susan's mother consulted Mr. Klein, one of the only men left in their apartment building. He told them that sometimes children have a sixth sense and that maybe they should stay at home. Within days, another family paid the farmer to live in the annex. The farmer immediately turned them in to the Nazis. Susan's family found another hiding place and survived the war together. Random luck? How should we understand what our intuitions are trying to tell us? What should we do once we get the messages? It is clear that using the rabbinic interpretation of pessimism as a sin does not help us understand Susan Blum Bendor's story.
Our immigration policy today is often restrictive and cruel. How would our ancestors have fared under these regulations? Are we empathetic enough to immigrants here and in Israel?
Have we considered making aliyah and getting involved in helping Israel face its future challenges? Or are we afraid to travel to Israel and reluctant to send our children to study there? We get the same mixed reports that the Children of Israel got from the scouts: We fear bus bombings and potential violence or war in Israel, but we also know the special wonder of a Shabbat in Jerusalem; we celebrate the miracle of Israel's fiftieth birthday even as we mourn the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin by a right-wing extremist.
In reality, our anxiety is realistic, but on the other side is the chance of a Jewish lifetime to visit Israel, study there, and consider the possibility of living there. Optimism and pessimism-together they constitute realism.
For further reading: The World of Our Mothers, Sydney Stahl Weinberg (New York, Schocken Books, 1990).