Torah Portion: Shelach Lecha
Book of Numbers
July 1, 2016
On November 11, 1947, in the British House of Commons, Winston Churchill quoted an unknown predecessor when he stated, “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time. . .”
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses selects a committee of twelve Israelite leaders to scout the Promised Land. Their mission is to “Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?” (Num. 13: 17-20).
From the beginning, Moses knew this unseen Promised Land was better than Egypt in the same way freedom is preferred to slavery. In an effort to achieve “buy in” from a recalcitrant and complaining Israelite population, Moses sent this committee of tribal representatives to ostensibly bring support for his position. What he didn’t count on was the possibility that a majority of appointed leaders would bring a negative report. In fact, only two (Joshua and Caleb) suggested the journey to the Promised Land go forward.
The Torah takes exception with the majority report-“And the Lord said to Moses. . .I will strike them with pestilence and disown them. .” (Num. 14:12) Over the centuries, countless scholars have joined in casting aspersion on the tribal leaders who denied the splendor of the Promised Land. Among the commentaries is at least one suggesting Moses’ mistake was in sending twelve tribal representatives. He would have been better served selecting one or two of his closest allies to carry out the mission.
Let’s not pretend ancient Israelite society was a democracy. We don’t live in ancient Israel, but are blessed to live in a democratic nation based on representative government. In theory, democracy affords each citizen the responsibility of determining his or her individual and communal future. Through representative government, each person has a voice and a vote.
For the majority, democracy is always a blessing from God. For those in the minority, it may seem far less blessed. This is the lesson Moses learned and the lesson many of us learn each time we hold an election. Supporting a government of the people, for the people, and by the people even when we stand in disagreement is the price we pay to maintain the democratic rights and freedoms we hold so dear.
“At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper-no amount of rhetoric and voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.” (Winston Churchill, House of Commons, October 31, 1944)
Rabbi Howard Siegel