I need three volunteers who are willing to be blindfolded. Thank you!
In front of you there is an object. Reach out and touch it. What is it?
Someone calls out that it has a tail. Someone else says it feels leathery. Someone else, holding the trunk, cries out it is a statue of an elephant.
Volunteers remove their blindfolds. It is, in fact, a statue of an elephant.
Have you ever driven in your car and failed to see another car when you are changing lanes? That’s a blind spot. It can be scary and dangerous and people can get hurt.
Today’s Torah portion is about blind spots. My business colleague and teacher, Ben Gilad, a retired major in Israel’s IDF used today’s Torah portion as the first recorded example of military and competitive intelligence. He would speak to a class of business professionals about how Moses sent these 12 men into Canaan to scout out the land and to report back. They were tasked with specific questions.
- How are the people?
- Are they strong or weak?
- Few or many?
- Are the cities fortified?
- Is the soil rich or poor?
- Does the land have trees?
- What kind of fruit?
All twelve returned. 40 days later—because it always takes at least 40 days to develop good intelligence. That is a standard competitive intelligence project. Any less and the information isn’t as reliable. They give Moses their report. It is a good land. A land flowing with milk and honey. It has pomegranates and figs and grapes. But the people are strong and the cities have walls and are very large. There are Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites.”
It is a truthful report. As far as it goes. Caleb, who was also there, said, “Let’s go overtake it.” But ten of the men are petrified. “We can’t attack those people. They’re too strong for us!”
“And they spread an evil report,” created what we might call today, “Fake News,” no matter which side of the political equation you are on.
“The land we scouted is one that eats its inhabitants. All the people we saw there are very tall. We saw Nephilim, the descendants of Anak there. We felt as small as grasshoppers, and that’s how we must have looked to them.”
What just happened here?
Remember what we did at the beginning of the discussion. It is actually a well known story from the Buddhist tradition that is also told in Hindu and Jain traditions and there is a Sufi Muslim version and a B’hai one. It is told frequently in business school. There is a John Godfrey Saxe poem about it. All of which ask essentially the same question,
It must, therefore, have some truth in it.
“A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, “elephant is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.”
The moral of this story is we need to learn to see the big picture, not just the part right in front of you.
That’s what happened to the 10 Spies. They only saw part of the picture. That’s what happens to us when we only listen to one news station.
I have been thinking a lot about truth. It is hard to hold multiple truths at the same time. But that is what our tradition demands. There is an old Jewish story that became a young adult novel, “Two Truths In My Pocket,” by Lois Ruby that deals with adolescent angst. The two truths that we are to keep in our pocket are “I am but dust and ashes,” and “For me the world was created.” How do we hold those two truths simultaneously? How do we not? I keep coming back to a reading in the Gates of Prayer:
- Once we learned one truth, and it was cherished or discarded, but it was one.
- Now we are told that the world can be perceived by many truths; now, in the reality all of us encounter, some find lessons that others deny.
- Once we learned one kind of life, and one reality; it too we either adopted or scorned.
- But right was always right and wrong was always wrong.
- Now we are told that there are many rights, that what is wrong may well be wrong for you but right for me.
- Yet we sense that some acts must be wrong for everyone and beyond the many half-truths is a single truth all of us may one day grasp.
- That clear way, that single truth, is what we seek in coming here, to join our people who saw the eternal One when others saw only the temporal Now.
- The call to oneness [the Shema] is an affirmation and a goal; to speak of God as One is to commit ourselves once more to our people’s ancient quest.
So the truth is that G-d is One—and that G-d wants for us a safe environment where there are many approaches to that Oneness. The most powerful book I read last year was “Not in G-d’s Name” by Rabbi Lord Sacks. He makes a compelling argument that G-d does not want killing or wars in G-d’s name. Instead, when that happens it is a corruption of the truth and of religion itself.
What G-d wants, I believe, is for people to be like G-d. What G-d demands is compassion. As G-d is compassionate, we too should be compassionate. So the haftarah this morning is equally important. Again we have spies. This time they are rescued. By an unlikely source. Rahab, the woman of ill repute. She rescued the spies. And they, in turn, promise to rescue her when the Israelites come back to overtake Jericho.
Both are acts of compassion. And because Rahab acted compassionately and because Joshua did as well, Rahab and her family, as questionable as her reputation was, was incorporated into the Jewish people, ultimately strengthening the Jewish people. That is the truth of that story.
That is the message of today’s portions. To learn to see the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me G-d.