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Parashat Shelach Lekha - The Crowd and its Spies

Sivan 22, 5770

The Crowd and its Spies

Further thoughts on Parashat Shelach

by John J. Parsons

According to Numbers Rabbah (a medieval commentary on the Book of Numbers), even those Israelites who disagreed with the majority in the incident of the spies were decreed to die in the desert.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act."

In most cases, the dynamic of the crowd (or mob) brings out the worst in human nature, inducing cowardly irresponsibility, appeals to selfishness, and even acts of violence. As Kierkegaard warned, "Going along with the crowd" weakens the individual's sense of responsibility by placing it in a fractional category. Personal responsibility for living out moral truth is negated by appeals to "consensus," or the "greater good" principle (or worse, by simply "going along with the crowd"). Like Pontius Pilate, most people disingenuously "wash their hands" by conceding to the mob and its lies.

    "When we're less accountable we tend to behave in ways we wouldn't," he said. "If I'm among thousands of celebrating people and I were to throw a beer bottle against a brick wall, you'd have a hard time picking me out." ("Sports Riots: The Psychology of Fan Mayhem," National Geographic magazine)

The crowd induces a "gang" mentality that appeals to the lowest common denominator of depraved human nature, preying on our weakness to feel "included," a part of something bigger than ourselves, or to be "anonymous" or to be protected... It's seduction is based on our need for security, though its "reasoning" is inherently fallacious, since it is based on emotion rather than on truth.  To the politician or other instigator, the applause or hiss of the crowd are the means of bullying human passions....

    "So if we see someone throw a beer bottle and it draws cheers from our group members who we're really identifying with at the time, we might be apt to match that behavior or up it" (ibid.)

Often demagogues tell part of the truth in order to win the crowd. When the ten spies returned to deliver their evil report, they did not lie per se. When they reported that the "land eats up its inhabitants" (Num. 13:32), they referred to the high death rate they witnessed in the land. According to the sages (Sotah 35), the Canaanites had a custom not to bury their dead immediately, but would keep their dead in boxes and wait until a prominent person died to perform a large-scale funeral for the community (the prominent soul was thought to escort the others to heaven). When the spies witnessed so many dead being buried, they failed to understand that God was already at work, weakening the enemy by bringing great plagues upon the land. The spies did not outright lie in this case, though they were misled because they did not understand what God was doing.  Their lack of faith (fear) caused them to misinterpret the situation.

In this regard, "truth" extends far beyond the realm of the objective and factual. Not everything that is not a lie (objectively speaking) is therefore the truth.  Truth is not superficial but goes beyond the realm of appearance to the realm of the possible. In other words, truth and faith go hand in hand. We "see" according to our presuppositions and underlying convictions.  How we see is as important as what we see... Faith sees the promise. As Yeshua said, "According to your faith, be it done unto you" (Matt. 8:13, 9:29).

Sometimes true words and actions performed in an unloving or spiteful manner are morally blameworthy. Bonhoeffer tells the story about how a teacher once humiliated one of her students by standing him up in front of the class to ask whether his father -- notoriously known as the town drunk -- had been out drinking the night before. The little boy knew the accusation was true but bravely announced "No."  When the teacher mockingly asked him again, pressing him for  "the truth," the boy was adamant: "NO!" Bonhoeffer's comment was that this little boy spoke more truth by his lie than if he had merely reported the "facts" to the class -- and thereby betrayed the dignity of his father... The truth is not some objective state of affairs that can be reported dispassionately. Without love as its context, such "truth" becomes a lie.  Satan keeps his own books.

The way we "see" is often determined by how we hear.... The Midrash Rabbah says that the ear (אזֶן) gives life to all the organs of the body.  How so? By listening (שׁמע, shema) to the Torah. This idea is repeated in the New Testament: "Faith comes from listening to the Word of God" (Rom. 10:17). The Word of God (דְּבַר־אֱלהִים) is our very life, chaverim.  Listening to other voices (regardless of how seemingly well-intended) risks cutting yourself off from the Source of life itself.... Hearing and obeying are linked, and "hearing" the messages of this corrupt world (i.e., "crowd") can eventually make you into an enemy of God Himself (James 4:4). The world always speaks its message to members of its "crooked and twisted generation" (Deut. 32:5). How else do politicians gain their audiences?

In this connection note that the Hebrew word for falsehood (or lie) is sheker (שֶׁקֶר), which the sages note can be rearranged to spell kesher (קֶשֶׁר), meaning a band, gang, or group of people.... The power of the lie is always found in the "group" rather than in the individual, and if enough people in the group repeat something untrue, eventually the individual's conscience will be overruled and the truth will be lost...

Following the LORD is not based on "majority rule," much less does it have anything to do with approval from the anonymous crowd.  Indeed, Yeshua was crucified because He would have nothing to do with the crowd (though He addressed himself to all). No one gets to heaven by following a crowd (or attending a church, joining a political party, etc.) but by surrendering their individual will to the reign of Yeshua. "For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live" (Deut. 32:47). Following the crowd (world) and following Yeshua are therefore entirely antithetical ways of life that will lead to collision. Guard your heart with all diligence (Prov. 4:23).

May God give us all ometz lev (courage) to stand for Him, despite the pressures of this world and its ongoing deception. Amen.


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