When Moses sent the twelve spies to check out the land, he gave them two subjects to investigate – the strength of the country and its inhabitants, and the health of its economy (Num. 13:2, 18-20).
The spies came back with a largely negative report which reversed the order of subjects. They said the economy was good (the land “flowed with milk and honey”) but the inhabitants were powerful and their cities heavily fortified.
They were not wrong on either count, but the issue was which aspect was more decisive – the physical power of the people or the economic strength of the country. The problem that weighed with the spies was whether the Israelites had any possibility of defeating powerful people and fortified cities.
From a military point of view the spies had a point, but what they didn’t have was faith. God had told them they would prevail and surely He knew what He was talking about.
For Moses the issue was not who would win a war but whether the economy was healthy enough to handle a change of regime.
STRINGS HANGING OUT.
When I was a student it was rare for anyone to have his tzitzit hanging out. Most of us kept our fringes inside our shirts but there were some boys who openly displayed their tzitzit.
No wonder a non-Jewish instructor in our college teachers’ department said to a certain student, “Mr. …, I think you have some strings hanging out!”
The boy tried his best to explain the situation to the teacher, who elicited from the rest of that we also wore tzitzit but we kept them inside our top clothing.
The Biblical basis of the mitzvah is at the end of this week’s sidra and forms the third paragraph of the Sh’ma (Num. 15:37-41).
These days the tzitzit-wearers quite often wear tzitzit outside their garments as a sign of Jewishness and a declaration of defiance that no-one is going to stop them proclaiming their Jewish identity to the world.
The Biblical passage that ordains tzitzit endows them, however, with an explanation that goes far beyond the idea of Jewish identity in the broad sense, important though that may well be. It says that the fringes are there for internal purposes, not so much to say something to the world but to remind the Jewish community to regard them as a token of our modesty and morality – “you shall look at it and not turn aside after your heart and eyes which lead you astray”.
Our eyes constantly see things which we stare at and are tempted to follow. Our hearts often find themselves attracted to feelings and desires which need to be kept under control.
The Targum Onkelos adds an interesting word when it puts this passage into Aramaic. Instead of telling us not to stray after our hearts it says not to stray after the thoughts of our heart.
In Biblical Hebrew the word “heart” generally means what we would call “mind”. So what the Targum is emphasising is that there is not only a temptation to be governed by our feelings and desires but also a danger that our minds will be diverted by wrong and questionable thoughts and ideas.
WHO WAS CALEV?
Calev, though not one of the front-ranking characters of the Bible, was one of the two optimistic spies. As a reward, he and his colleague Joshua were the only members of that generation who survived to enter Canaan (Deut. 1:36-38).
Later on, according to rabbinic tradition, he was appointed to another fact-finding mission, as one of two spies sent by Joshua to check out the situation in Jericho (Josh. 2). Joshua knew how reliable he was and had no doubts that the reconnaissance would be unbiased.
Why the sages thought so highly of Calev is partly explained by his piety. They surmise that when the twelve spies were in Canaan, the ten who later proved to be pessimists looked only at material aspects. Calev, however, went to Hebron to find the graves of the patriarchs and to pray there for Divine guidance (Sotah 34b).
He was also loyal and fair to Moses. When the ten, the “evil congregation”, tried to provoke the people to rise up against Moses, Calev stood up, listed all that Moses had done for Israel, and said, “Even if he were to tell us to make ladders and climb up to the heavens, we ought to follow him!” (Sotah 35a).
He has various names, and when he is described as Calev ben Yephunneh (Num. 13:6) it is a play on words, since he turned away (from the root “panah”) from the negativism of the ten pessimists.