There is a TV commercial that distinguishes between simply monitoring and actively preventing identity theft. A violent bank robbery is in process. The monitor surveys the situation as the customers fall to the floor imploring this uniformed man to take action. He responds that he is merely a monitor; taking action is not his job. And yes indeed, there is a bank robbery underway.
The story of the spies in Parshat Shlach seems similar. Twelve men were selected and sent out to survey the land of Canaan and report back. They did what was asked and reported what they believed they saw. An insightful rabbi taught me that the answer to a question depends on the question you ask. It also depends on the nature of the respondent.
These were twelve men, “…one man each from his father’s tribe; each one shall be a chieftain in their midst” (Num. 13:2). They were leaders within their respective clans, but were they capable as conquerors? The Hebrew word is Nasi, or Prince. They were princes of the individual tribes but not necessarily the top dog, or the General of the Army to use a military term. So were these spies conquerors or bureaucrats, men of action or fearful men of complacency and conservatism?
Had the idea of freedom and freedom’s responsibilities permeated this new Israelite society? It
seems not; for only two spies, Caleb and Joshua believed they could actually overcome their foes and possess the land. It is possible that a deliberate selection of strategists and warriors as the twelve spies would have yielded a unanimous joining of Caleb’s assessment that they could vanquish the Canaanites. However, the spies’ ability to sway the people indicated that the Israelite people were not yet ready to enter the Land and receive the promise and responsibilities that go with it.
We also, both individually and collectively, need to ask ourselves which are we? Are we agents of change like Caleb and Joshua, or agents of the status quo? Are we willing to find ways to achieve lofty goals or fearful of the risks and unwilling to reach for more hoping to preserve what we have? Often, trying to maintain the status quo is riskier than taking the chance to make something better. Although we should always be grateful for what we have, when it comes to values such as human rights, peace, justice, equality, and security, we can always aspire to something greater. The question remains, Are we willing to take the risk?