Shelakh-lecha (Num. 13:1 – 15:41)

This week: disaster. 

Moses very publicly sends 12 chieftains into the Promised Land on a fact-finding mission concerning the people (strong or weak? few or many?), the country (good or bad?), towns (open or fortified?), and the land itself (rich or poor soil? wooded or not? And bring back some produce.).  They are not supposed to make any judgement concerning their ability to conquer the land.  That is (supposed to be) a given.  But when they return 40 days later, 10 of the 12 (all except Joshua and Caleb) report that the land is great and fertile, but also unconquerable and full of giants.  [In the Haftarah (Joshua 2:1-24), in contrast, Joshua quietly and successfully sends two real spies into Jericho on a military mission.  Of course, he’d had the intervening 38+ years to think about his strategy.]

General panic ensues.  The Lord wants to wipe them out, Moses intervenes, and the people are “just” punished.  The 10 contrary scouts are killed by a plague and the people are condemned to wander in the wilderness for a total of 40 years (i.e., 38+ more) until everyone who was then 20 and older (except for Caleb and Joshua) has died.  A small contingent, claiming to have repented, then tries to attack the Canaanites on their own, but they are crushed. 

The portion ends with various commands concerning sacrifices, resident aliens, witting and unwitting law breaking, and tzitzit, all tasks to be carried out when (not if) the next generation enters Canaan.

This portion begins ambiguously.  The Lord says, “Send for yourself men to scout…”  Rashi interprets “for yourself” as a disclaimer (Hey, I’m not ordering this, it’s on your head).  In Deuteronomy, Moses says the people asked for this.  In any event, it seems to be a move taken by Moses to reassure a nervous people, in public, using their own leaders.  Moses did not appreciate the risk and far-reaching effects of sending such a mission when he didn’t have to, the risk of “no.” [I am reminded, naturally, of the crisis precipitated in the United Kingdom, implications summarized by one newscast as “You Brexit, you bought it.”]

But what really was the sin that lead to such a punishment?  According to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, it wasn’t simply a loss of already-shaky faith.  They don’t doubt the goodness of the land, nor do they speak against the Lord.  The key lies in 13:33: (W)e looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”  As Rabbi Riskin put it, “Tragedy erupts not so much when others take a sudden dislike to us, but when we dislike ourselves and become paralyzed and passive as a result. The sin of the scouts is not in the terrible report they bring, but in their vision of themselves, a perception which becomes contagious, and which ends up as a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. As James Baldwin said so aptly, he could forgive America for enslaving black people, but he could never forgive America for making the blacks feel that they were worthless, that they deserved to be slaves. And that’s precisely what Egypt did to the Hebrews!”

Next week, disaster is followed by cataclysm.

Shabbat shalom and Happy Fourth of July,


From 2011

Big thinkers – Infants use size to predict social dominance [excerpt]

Psychologists at Harvard University have found that infants younger than a year old understand social dominance and use relative size to predict who will prevail when two individuals’ goals conflict. The finding is presented this week in the journal Science. (Science 28 January 2011: 477-480. [DOI:10.1126/science.1199198])

(Lotte) Thomsen and colleagues at Harvard and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), studied the reactions of infants ranging from 8 to 16 months old.  The researchers showed infants videos depicting a large and a small block with eyes and mouth bouncing across a stage in opposite directions. Next, infants watched the two blocks meet in the middle, impeding one another’s progress. They then saw either the large or the small block bow and step aside, deferring to the other.

“As predicted by our theory, the infants watched much longer when a large agent yielded to a smaller one,” Thomsen says. In a follow-up experiment, Thomsen and her co-authors found that 8-month-old infants failed to grasp the significance of the larger block deferring to the smaller one. But those who were 10 to 16 months old consistently demonstrated surprise at depictions of a larger individual yielding to a smaller one, suggesting that this conceptual understanding develops between 8 and 10 months of age.

[In short (ha ha), size matters. IGP]


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Panic quotes

Leadership has been defined as the ability to hide your panic from others” (Unknown)

Doubts and mistrust are the mere panic of timid imagination, which the steadfast heart will conquer, and the large mind transcend.”  Helen Keller quotes (American Author and Educator who was blind and deaf. 18801968)

If you’re going to panic, panic constructively” (Unknown)

Dread of disaster makes everybody act in the very way that increases the disaster. Psychologically the situation is analogous to that of people trampled to death when there is a panic in a theatre caused by a cry of `Fire!’ Bertrand Russell quotes (English Logician and Philosopher 18721970)

A wave of panic passed over the vessel, and these rough and hardy men, who feared no mortal foe, shook with terror at the shadows of their own minds.”  Arthur Conan Doyle, Sr. quotes (Scottish writer, creator of the detective Sherlock Holmes, 18591930)


Humor Under Communism: East German Jokes Collected by West German Spies (excerpts)

By Hans-Ulrich Stoldt and Klaus Wiegrefe

“What would happen if the desert became communist? Nothing for a while, and then there would be a sand shortage.” Jokes like that made the rounds among East Germans during the communist era, and West Germany’s intelligence service would collect them, as a way to assess the public mood behind the Iron Curtain but also to amuse its masters in Bonn, the West German capital.

The jokes were gleaned from secretly opened letters and phone conversations that agents from West Germany’s Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) would monitor in their quest for East German state secrets during the Cold War.  It scrupulously collected and filed the jokes and dispatched them to Bonn during the carnival season each year, much to the delight of civil servants. The BND has just released the files it kept on East German humor.

Carnival Treat for West German Officials

The joke report was by far the most popular service the spies provided. “It was our biggest hit,” recalls former BND spy Dieter Gandersheim, whose real name is of course quite different. The Chancellery and the ministries couldn’t wait for the file, he said.

It wasn’t just about livening up the gray civil service routine. The jokes gave insights into what ordinary East Germans were thinking about their regime and about current events. The Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 spawned a new proverb, for example: If the farmer falls off his tractor, he must be close to a reactor.  Chernobyl, incidentally, wasn’t an accident, another joke went. It was just a Soviet program to X-ray its population.

“Political jokes thrive in dictatorships,” says Christoph Kleeman, a former official from the Birthler Authority, which was set up after German unification to manage the archives of the East German secret police, or Stasi. “Anyone who tells one or laughs about one creates democracy for a brief moment, and brings the regime leaders down to his level.”

Playing With Fire

Christmas has been cancelled, goes another joke. Mary didn’t find any diapers for the baby Jesus, Joseph was called up to the army and the three kings didn’t get a travel permit.

“Telling jokes was playing with fire,” says Kleemann. The Stasi had 91,000 employees and a network of around 189,000 civilian informants to spy on the East German population of 17 million. It regarded every political joke as a potential threat. Anyone who poked fun at the representatives of the organs of state and society was subject to prosecution.

“There were cases of people who were jailed, it was particularly bad in the 1950s and 1960s,” says Kleemann.

Here’s one example about how that risk was lampooned: “There are people who tell jokes. There are people who collect jokes and tell jokes. And there are people who collect people who tell jokes.”


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