We have probably all had a similar experience: You’re trying to be serious, or you’re trying to maintain a positive attitude. It may be during a conversation, or in prayer, or simply when you’re on a reflective walk down the street. You’re seeing the world in positive terms, you’re feeling good about yourself: a sense of openness, a sense of connectedness, a sense of possibility, a sense of sacredness.
But then something, or someone, interrupts you and causes you to lose your balance, to lose the moment. It may be a genuine act of cynicism and fear. Or it may be totally unintentional. They may even be motivated by a desire for holiness themselves. But they fail to recognize their own behavior and the impact it will have on you.
A friend of mine talks about such an episode. It was at a Jewish summer camp, and hundreds of kids were sitting around a campfire, singing camp songs and having a great time. A colleague of my friend came over to him and said, “I can’t believe the song leader is singing these lousy songs. He should be singing better stuff.” My friend responded, “You know, right now I’m trying to see this as hundreds of Jewish kids having a great time with each other at a Jewish summer camp. So let’s not focus on what’s not here, and focus instead on what is.”
The theme of sight, and more specifically on how we come to see what we see, pervades Parshat Shelach. Moses instructs the spies to “see what the land is like,” and what the people are like. (Num. 13:18) His questions are objective ones: are the inhabitants strong or weak, are their cities walled or unwalled, is the soil good or bad. These things can be measured. But the report back, which precipitates the rebellion that leads to the people’s exclusion from the land for 40 years, while beginning with what seems an objective report, quickly becomes subjective:
“We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size… We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Num. 13:31-33)
The report builds to this final line: “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” While we can argue about whether truly objective reporting is ever really possible, there is no question that this remark represents not objective analysis, but subjective seeing. At this moment the spies take a stance in their act of seeing, they create a lens that filters and colors their perceptions and creates a picture of the world for the people they lead. It is at this precise moment that the people lose faith, and that God realizes they cannot be the ones to enter the land of Canaan.
This is a powerful reminder for us, that the way we see the world is never as simple as the physical act of light hitting our eyes. To see the world involves interpretation and evaluation, acts which are bound up in the language—the words, values, and ideas—by which we make meaning of our experience. And language is a social activity, created by and creating the people who speak and read and write it. The way we see the world is tied up with the people with whom we see the world. We all influence one another’s seeing. We are co-creators of each other’s imaginations. The spies’ failure was to create a cynical reality for the rest of the people.
The parasha ends with the commandment to make tzitzit, fringes on our garments. The language of the commandment is clearly a response to the incident of the spies. “You will have these tassels to see, so you will remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them and not wantonly follow the lusts of your own hearts and eyes.” (Num. 15:39) As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes, the tzitzit are an organic metaphor, as their name suggests: they are growths, fruits, extensions, and roots all at once. They extend our garments, and remind us that our selves are extended in the same way.
The way we see ourselves, the way we see the world, is tied up in that ineffable nexus of language where self, other, and world intersect and take shape. The reminder of parshat Shelach therefore is that we are, in the classical Hebrew phrase, arevim ze lazeh: we are all responsible for one another. Our conduct, our language, our words and actions both make us who we are and shape the world of those around us.