It’s hard to think of a more dreadful action against the Almighty than the orgy around the golden calf, while Moses received the tablets of the Law. No wonder, then, that Moses ordered the Levites to draw their swords and kill all the idolators. Yet, as our rabbi reminded us last Sabbath, many Jewish scholars believe the Israelites en route to the Holy Land performed an even greater sin when they believed ten of their twelve spies who said that the inhabitants of the land of Canaan were too strong, and that any effort to conquer them was doomed to failure. The other two, Joshua and Caleb, said that victory was possible.
For permitting themselves to become paralyzed by fear, for accepting a misleading intelligence assessment from the ten instead of listening to the clear-eyed reports of Joshua and Caleb, for refusing to confidently move forward against their enemies, an entire generation of Jews was compelled to wander in the wilderness.
I knew those guys were important, but until last Sabbath I hadn’t understood the extent of their significance. Many years ago, at the request of Seth Lipsky, I wrote a serialized novel for The Forward about Jim Angleton’s complex and important relationship with the Israeli internal security service, the Shin Bet. The tradition of the newspaper was that such novels had to be written under a pseudonym, and I chose “Joshua Caleb,” the two most famous names in the history of Jewish espionage. So the rabbi’s commentary on the two — whose story is in the week’s portion of the Bible — caught my attention. I had known them for a long time.
The failure to pursue victory doomed the Jews of that generation to wander in the desert. They were denied freedom in the Promised Land, having proven themselves unworthy of it. I find that story doubly important for us, both because of its historical and moral significance, and because of its contemporary relevance. We are challenged to fight an enemy who wishes to deny us our freedom, and enslave us. We hear voices repeating the false intelligence of the ten, telling us that all is lost, that there is no hope. Iraq is lost, they say, and Iran must be appeased. I was just invited to a conference on “how to live with a nuclear Iran.” There will be more such voices, perhaps even a consensus that we cannot win, and must accept our doom.
Joshua and Caleb saw more deeply, realized that their war could be won, and their cause was just, and refused to surrender to the “consensus” of the ten. In the end, they were proven correct, the war was won, and the Jews became a free people.
The battle against tyranny is endless on this earth, and we can no more escape it than could the wandering Jews. I agree with the rabbi; the sin of abandoning hope and of surrendering to tyranny is even greater than idolatry. A terrible sin indeed.