To Be an Ish


Commentators have long noticed a contradiction in the Torah’s account of the tribal leaders who were sent to spy out the land of Canaan. In this week’s reading, the idea of sending them clearly came from God:


And the Lord said to Moses, “Send out for yourself men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel; send one from each tribe” (Num 13:1-2).


But later, in the book of Deuteronomy, it would appear that the idea actually came from the people themselves:


[Moses said:] Then all of you [Israelites] approached me and said, “Let us send men ahead of us so that they may explore the land for us and report back to us about the way for us to take, and the cities that we are to enter.” This seemed good to me, so I chose from among you twelve men, one from each tribe. (Deut 1:22-23)


Whose idea was it, God’s or the Israelites’ (and, in the latter case, an idea subsequently approved by Moses)? The Talmud (Sotah 34b) notes that the passage in this week’s reading contains a bit of wiggle room. It reports in the name of Resh Laqish the observation that God had said, “Send out for yourself…” This phrase might indeed be implying that God’s words came in response to an earlier, unreported request submitted by Moses on the people’s behalf. Building on this, Rashi’s commentary asserts that “for yourself” means that God had actually told the Israelites, “I myself am not commanding you. If you wish to, then send [them], since the Israelites came [to you] and said, “Let us send men…”


Thus, it was not originally God’s idea, nor even that of Moses, but a proposal that originated with the people.


Sometimes left out of this discussion is the word anashim. This is of course the common term for “men,” the plural of ish, “man.” But to think only of this meaning is incomplete. Often, ish in the Torah was in itself a term of respect. “When Moses he tried to mediate between two fighting men, one of them objected: “Who appointed you to be an ish, a leader and ruler over us?” (Exod 2:14). Later, when Moses had stayed a seemingly impossible length of time on Mount Sinai, the people say, “This ish Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt—we have no idea what may have happened to him” (Exod 32:1). They apparently meant that without Moses, they lacked an ish and would need someone (or some thing) to lead them now that he was gone. Somewhat similarly, people in later times would address the High Priest honorifically as ishi kohen gadol. And indeed, in the continuation of this week’s reading the spies are described as “every one of them a chief…all of them anashim; the heads of the Israelites they were” (Num 13:2-3).


Why was this wording significant? From ancient times to the present, and especially for those schooled in the ways of modern democracy, leadership itself sometimes seems suspect. Those in high office, we feel, should devote themselves to carrying out the will of the people and leave their own ideas out of it. In fact, “Don’t trust leaders,” was a popular slogan of the 1960s (and justified in many respects).


But in practice, this is shortsighted. There is a reason why modern democracies are representative democracies, in which voters choose leaders to make the vital decisions. Theoretically, we could all vote by computer on any matter that might come up, registering our opinions two or three times a week on anything from garbage collection to going to war. But for the most part, we’d rather choose other people to run the country, working fulltime on such questions and deciding them on our behalf. Of course this can, and often does, go awry, but however faulty this procedure may appear, we generally prefer it to allowing the raw majority to run the state.


So what is anashim in this week’s reading, or in the commentators’ reading of this reading, really telling us? Truthfully, it was not the idea of sending out the spies that was at fault. That was a perfectly normal thing to suggest. The problem was with the anashim who were sent to do it. Apart from Joshua and Caleb, they were not up to the job, quailing and quivering when courage was what was required.


Back when the young Moses, fresh from Pharaoh’s court, saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite man, he hesitated for a minute. “He turned this way and that and saw no ish there, so he killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand” (Exod 2:12). The rabbis doubted that the capital’s bustling streets were inexplicably empty at that moment; “there was no ish” couldn’t have meant that. Rather, there were plenty of people, but no one else was prepared to take action. So the rabbis said, “In a place where there is no ish, try to be an ish.


Shabbat shalom!


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