Friday, June 17, 2011


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi



And they said to Joshua: “For the Lord has given this entire land into our hand: furthermore, all the inhabitants of the land have melted away from before us. (Joshua 2:2).

In this parashah, Moses instructs twelve leaders of Israel to gather information about the population of the Promised Land (“are they strong or weak, few or many?”), its natural resources (“is it good or bad?”) and, most importantly, about its defense structure, the nature of its cities (“and what is the nature of the cities that they inhabit, are they open encampments or well fortified?”).  The despairing, pessimistic report of ten of these “spies” was based on their impressions of the local population and on their perception of the impenetrability of its defenses: “And the cities have very great fortifications.  Moreover we saw giants there.”(Num. 13:12)

Forty years later their perception was confirmed by the Israelites who were ready to attack. The first stronghold they encountered indeed appeared to be utterly impregnable: “And Jericho was closed and enclosed [to the children of Israel].  No one could depart or enter.” (Joshua 6:1)

The besieging Israelites could not have been surprised by this fact.  Unlike their predecessors forty years earlier, the anonymous pair of spies had encountered a remarkably vigilant enemy.   The twelve princes had been tourists rather than real spies.  They had traversed the country without challenge, free to make detailed observations and to carry samples of its agricultural bounty in full view.   In contrast, Joshua’s agents were detected by alert intelligence agents and hotly pursued.  They were compelled to seek shelter in a house of ill repute, finally escaping stealthily, like thieves in the night.   Even then they were not safe.  Pursued by skilled and well-armed trackers, they were forced to hide in the mountains for three stressful days before they felt safe enough to return to the Israelite camp.  But notwithstanding their personal encounter with the formidable defenses of Jericho, “they said to Joshua:  ‘For the Lord has delivered the entire country into our hand and, furthermore, all the inhabitants of the land have melted away from before us.’ ” (Joshua 2:22).

In a striking midrashic comment, the sages demonstrate remarkable insight about the uncanny military judgment of Joshua’s spies on the one hand and the woeful inexperience of Moses’  “spies” on the other:  “How could one know their strength?  Are they living in open encampments or in fortified towns?  If they dwell in open encampments, they are powerful and confident of their strength.  But if they dwell in fortified towns, they are weak and fainthearted.” (Midrash Tanhuma, Joshua 6). 

Moses’ spies had reached the erroneous conclusion that sophisticated and impenetrable fortifications reflect great power and daunting military preparedness.  Joshua’s spies made the counterintuitive and opposite inference.  The power of a people depends on its self-confidence and its belief in its aptitude and capacity to deal with challenges rather than upon its fortifications.  People who are unsure of themselves place their trust primarily in inert barriers.  They are afraid to venture into the open because they do not trust their offensive capabilities.

Significantly, modern Israel’s military doctrine is based upon its offensive strategies.  The one and only time it deviated from this doctrine was its reliance upon the fortified Bar lev Line at the beginning of the Yom Kippur war in 1973--and that was almost fatal. 

The insight of Joshua’s spies transcends the narrow sphere of military tactics.  It applies to life in all its facets. All human relationships are characterized either by defensiveness or openness. This is true on the level of the individual and also on the level of all human collectives—family, community, faith-group, interfaith and international.

Most individuals have suffered childhood hurts and disappointments. These experiences determine their view of the world, and the strategies they develop for their survival. A child who has been constantly criticized for underperforming, may learn that approval demands perfect performance, and may become an obsessive perfectionist. A child who has been pressured to confess to minor, even unintentional, “misdeeds”, and then cruelly punished for disclosing, may deduce that surviving depends on keeping everything secret. The likelihood of children with such experiences becoming open adults is small. Their fears, doubts, blemishes and vulnerabilities will remain concealed, even from their spouses. They will be self-enclosed, defended and distant. Since intimacy depends on mutual disclosure, empathic communication and reciprocal sharing, the couple will never really be close. Strong defenses are meant to keep people out. Healing requires jettisoning early, outmoded and dysfunctional defenses, and developing a healthy sense of self and the courage to trust those who really do care.

Consider the story of a family I knew: The head of the household had three siblings who were his business partners. A deal went sour and they lost much money. His siblings maintained their close relationship with the individual who had not only caused the loss but also besmirched his reputation. He felt betrayed by his siblings, left the partnership and went out on his own. He discouraged his children from having anything to do with their cousins, putting an invisible wall around his family to protect them from the pain of further betrayals.

 Unintentional hurts inflicted by the few people allowed to penetrate the defensive barriers were seen as deliberate betrayals, and the family became ever more isolated and secretive. Ultimately, nobody outside the  original nuclear family could be trusted.

Sadly, the pattern of family isolation became transgenerational. The family structures of the next generation were equally closed, although the original experience of betrayal had long since ceased to hurt. An immature defense against pain and disappointment had become a permanently dysfunctional way of life.

Just as families are open or closed, so are communities. Israel Zangwil aptly characterized prejudice as the dislike of the unlike. Although he was discussing anti-Semitism, his observation applies to all groups that are afraid or suspicious of those who differ from them in their mores and beliefs. The differences may be religious or even socio-economic. Some private clubs are closed both to Jews and to the working classes. No group or community is immune from this tendency. It is universal, applying equally to gentile and Jew. Fine congregations have in-groups and out-groups, with those on the community periphery often excluded from the celebrations of the elite core, and coreligionists with different lifestyles feeling unwelcome.

Interdenominational dynamics have similar characteristics. Sunni Moslems bomb Shia mosques, and Shia massacre Sunni. Brotherhood fanatics in Egypt burn Coptic churches. Catholics and Protestants have had their Thirty Year Wars, and the history of Christianity is littered with pogroms and expulsions of Jews. There is even a new term for process of closing societies in this way. It is called ethnic cleansing.

I did an experiment on prejudice many years ago in my native South Africa. Noted psychologist, Professor Hans Eysenck, had published the questionnaire he had developed to study ani-Semitism in Britain. I reprinted it, substituting the word “Black” for the word “Jew” throughout the document. I then distributed the new version to the members of my community. The results indicated widespread racial prejudice and fear of black people. The respondents were shocked to learn that they were doing a survey of anti-Semitism, and that they were as prejudiced and suspicious of blacks as prejudiced gentiles were against Jews. Indeed, had they been gentiles they might themselves have been anti-Semitic.

Fortunately, Jews have not indulged in ethnic cleansing. But non-orthodox pulpits regularly demonize the orthodox, and most orthodox rabbis shun contact with their non-orthodox colleagues. Official social interaction across denominational lines is rare. Fearful of the others and their potential toxic influence, Jews of different groups choose to isolate themselves behind invisible walls. The rationale is ideological, but the reason is fear and lack of self-confidence in their ability to flourish in a completely open environment. The barriers are of different dimensions. The highest effectively separates the community from the modern world and its presumably seductive and destructive pagan culture.

Fear is fear, and invisible walls of separation scarcely conceal weakness. Strong and confident people are open to the other and unthreatened by differences. In their view, indifference is far more threatening than difference.



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