Be careful what you wish for, it might come true
Thoughts on parashat Sh’lach
Our Torah portion for this week tells us a story of 12 spies sent by Moses to investigate the Promised land before conquering it. They return forty days later, carrying a huge cluster of grapes, a pomegranate and a fig, to report on a lush and bountiful land. But ten of the spies warn that the inhabitants of the land are giants and warriors “more powerful than we”; only Caleb and Joshua insist that the land can be conquered, as it was commanded by God.
Our rabbis analyzed this story from many perspectives. One of the issues they were particularly focused on can be expressed in the following questions: What was the sin of the spies who were sent to investigate the promised land? What did the spies do so dreadfully wrong that it brought the punishment of additional forty years of life on the desert for all the Israelites, making many of them never see the Promised land? One of the answers suggested by our rabbis is that they presented their biased opinion about the land and the possibility of conquering it instead of giving a relatively unbiased factual account on what the Promised land was like. According to Ramban, their goal was to gather the information about the land mainly for logistic purposes, to be able to develop a good strategy to conquer it; this, according to Rashi, is expressed in the name of the parasha shelach lecha – “send out (the spies) for yourself”. But none of that happened and it even seems that these ten spies were on the side of all the complainers among the Israelites who constantly murmured against Moses and God and wanted to come back to Egypt. They did not really go to investigate the land; they went there to collect the information that would prove their narrative, to use contemporary language.
What can we learn from it? The ten Israelite spies who lacked faith in God deemed the Promised land impossible to conquer. The remaining two, Joshua and Caleb, who had faith in God help were way more positive about the land and the ability to conquer it, although they admitted that the Divine help is necessary:
And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, of those who had scouted the land, rent their clothes and exhorted the whole Israelite community: “The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land. If pleased with us, יהוה will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against יהוה. Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey: their protection has departed from them, but יהוה is with us. Have no fear of them! (Numbers 14:6-9)
The entire story can serve as an illustration of the 20th century proven epistemological view that our perception of the world (and ourselves) is dependent on our previously acquired knowledge about the world. In other words, we perceive and interpret everything that is around us (and within us, like our identity) in terms of what we have already learned, what we already believe about reality, through the entire cognitive apparatus that is the core structure of our knowledge and our belief system. This cognitive apparatus might be an adequate tool with an adequate language to describe reality; it might be a less adequate or completely inadequate tool for comprehending reality, and therefore a serious obstacle to our perception and ability to process information. It’s not a new concept. The idea that the human subject plays an active role in comprehending reality, was already developed in the writings of philosophers such as David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and some versions of it can already be found in the writings of ancient Greek philosophers. However, this knowledge/belief based determination of our perception and cognitive abilities, contrary to the opinions of some postmodern thinkers, does not create an absolute obstacle in our cognition would make it impossible for us to know the objective truths of the universe. We have already learned how to overcome these obstacles; much of what we call the methodology of science is about overcoming various cognitive limitations, including these ones. Generally speaking, scientific methodology has been very successful in this matter and it is important to mention this because some postmodern concepts completely blurred the distinctions between science and pseudoscience, opening a path to the reign of ignorance, cognitive nihilism, bringing and perpetuating a variety of cognitive delusions.
Our perception is then determined by our knowledge and beliefs. All of that, in turn, influences our actions. What we believe to be true can have a tremendous impact on our actions and therefore on our fate. But fortunately our beliefs can usually be verified in practical life; therefore, whatever we do we should reflect on (practical) consequences of our beliefs and constantly ask ourselves questions like these: what my beliefs led me to? Do they make me happy? How do they influence my relationships with other people, including my loved ones? How do they influence my career? Are they helpful in achieving my life goals? Is there something I need to correct in my belief system? How, in fact, did I get to believe this and that? An so on.
Getting things wrong can have a bad impact on us; some consequences of our beliefs might be terrible for us, equally bad to those the Israelities faced in our biblical story. The only remedy for that is a prudent, reflective life in which we are able to critically look at our beliefs, even the most fundamental ones, and subject them to re-evaluation. Only this can ultimately save us from many things we never want to experience.