Lessons from the Book of Numbers on the nature of true belief

(Photo: Unsplash/Sincerely Media)

This morning, I was on my daily rounds when I spied a police car. At the moment it is very dangerous to be Jewish in this country, so I expected the worst, as the police car was parked outside my neighbour's who is aged 90 and who lives in an easily-accessible ground-floor flat. I thought that at best she might have been burgled and at worst.....

On enquiring further, however, I discovered from the friendly police officer that in fact he was booking a driver for speeding through our area. I was almost relieved – at least my elderly friend was OK.

Why did I make a mistake? Because my perception was all wrong. I was expecting the worst to happen to members of the Jewish community, but on this occasion at least, that expectation and those perceptions were far from the truth.

This Shabbat's Bible reading comes from Numbers 13-15. It is the story of the spies. And much has been made of the 12 men who are sent by Moses to spy out the Land of Canaan, all but two of whom come back with exaggerated stories of the dangers posed by the Land.

In Hebrew the reading is called 'Shelach-Lecha', which means 'send for yourself', and has immediate resonances with G-d's earlier call to Abram, 'Lech Lecha', to leave his home of idolatry in Ur and to travel to the same Promised Land, for his own sake and to carry out G-d's mission in that Promised Land.

So when do things have to be changed and when are things only a matter of our own perception? Much has been made in the last decades about the way we see things being prime in how we go about our way in the world. None of us is a blank page (we have known that for centuries), but where does perception have its limits and politics have to take over?

The case of the spies is a moot point. Some commentators argue that the spies knew very well that they were allowing themselves to be overcome by their own fears because they quite liked their comparatively comfortable lives in the desert.

Hadn't G-d sent them adequate food, the manna, which miraculously fed them every day, with even enough for Shabbat – the day of rest? Hadn't G-d even provided them with a leader called Moses, who told them what to do and rebuked them when necessary?

To acknowledge that entering the Land would take them away from their comfort zone was simply too much for some of them to bear. That's why they made up 'tall stories' about giants and other surrounding foes.

And some even wanted to return to Egypt, the source of their slavery and hard labour. But in Egypt the children of Israel at least knew what to expect. Life was consistently back-breaking and awful, but at least it was consistent. Living in the Land of Israel would be unpredictable and new types of resilience would be expected of the people – G-d required no less than the elasticity and creative thinking of pioneers, not the slavish obedience of sheep.

Fourteen years ago at this time of year, in the centre of Jerusalem, I was invited to preach a sermon on this very same Torah reading. At that time, I travelled down from Haifa, marvelling at the early descent of the bus down the Carmel and the final ascent up the hill to Jerusalem, with the flatter bits in between. I really couldn't believe that I was doing this in the capital city of the Jewish people, by invitation of one of its most innovative synagogue communities.

On that occasion, I chose to discuss the tiny difference between the Hebrew word for 'pilgrim' which is a positive concept and the word for 'spy', which is of course normally regarded as negative. At that time I pointed out that if the perception of those who now come to spy on the modern State of Israel were only to change one iota, these self-appointed critics would morph almost imperceptibly into the 'pilgrims' which the original 12 spies were meant to be.

At that time, I was referring of course to all those journalists, aid workers and pundits who arrive in Jerusalem without the first inkling of the Hebrew language, and basically tell the same tale – the country is awful; apartheid abounds; it's full of malign Jewish influences; it's dreadful for minorities; and it doesn't deserve to survive.

In fact, the modern State of Israel is nothing short of a miracle, and the above perceptions of visiting pundits are almost all the very opposite of the truth. But facts on the ground are alien to the new breed of journalist and aid worker.

And what they really don't understand, as being alien to Christianity, Islam and western cultures alike, is that self-criticism, argument and heated debate are all part and parcel of the Jewish psyche. These spies (sorry 'visitors') simply cannot abide the obvious fact that a country of only 73 years of age has a democratically-elected government (based on Proportional Representation), a well-educated 20% Arab minority (including Muslims and Christians), thriving Druze and Bahai citizens and even people who don't adhere to any religion and who yet, for some reason or other, want to live in this Jewish country. And the number of people queuing up to convert to Judaism is increasing exponentially.

And yet, what is the secret of the Jewish people and their amazing and often immensely irritating country? The secret is hard slog, blood, toil, tears and sweat (to cite Winston Churchill). There is no such thing as a free lunch and G-d never promised the Jewish people a rose garden. What he promised was a vale of tears and a crown of thorns – and the knowledge that they could never ever take anything for granted.

In order for the Land to be 'flowing with milk and honey' (Numbers 13: 27), preparation would be needed. And this is indeed what happened. In the 19th centuries, people trained in agriculture in the lands of their birth (often Russia and Eastern Europe at that time), in order not simply to 'arrive' at a 'Promised Land', but in order to be useful and to make it work. For if Judaism is anything, it is a faith which believes in the small gesture, tiny steps, little pinpricks, and constant practice and training.

We can't all be pioneers – and we can't all build up lands – but what we can do in our lives (and this is surely one of the most salient lessons of the Parsha 'Shelach Lecha') is to be ever open and alert to new ideas and possibilities, and to try as hard as we can to approach encounters with an open and positive mind.

If we train ourselves in that way, it seems to me, at least our relations with others will improve and when the time comes to face the real enemy (which may be Hitler, or Hamas, rather than your local burglar), we will at least have been 'forewarned and forearmed'.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.