We shall be reading Numbers chapter 13:17 to 14:10.
‘After the majority must one incline.’ This quotation from the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b) is the principle by which Jewish law has developed. A Bet Din – rabbinic court – consists of three people. In ancient times the Sanhedrin - supreme court, consisted of twenty thee or seventy one members. In each case an odd number was chosen so a clear majority could be discerned. Another passage confirms this approach. Halachah - rabbinic practice, is determined thus: ‘Where an individual has an issue with the majority, the halachah is determined by the majority.’ (Berachot 37a)
So lets look at our parashah. Moses sends twelve spies into the land of Canaan. Two come back bearing a positive view of the land and the Israelites’ prospects of conquering it, and ten come back saying it is too well defended, the people too big and strong for us to be able to do anything against them. The people take the part of the ten, weep and wail and demand a new leader that will take them back to Egypt. God’s anger flares out and the people are condemned to another forty years in the wilderness before they can again approach the land.
On the basis of the halachah, the people were right to side with the ten men over the two. Moreover, from a purely practical point of view, if the majority feel they can’t win, then they are psychologically in the wrong place to achieve a victory. The ten men who offered the ‘evil report’ have also become the basis of another halachic principle. The minyan – the need to have ten to constitute a prayer quorum, derives from the ten spies, so they seem to have been rewarded rather than punished for their report.
So why then, God’s anger, and the punishment? It is not because they chose to follow the ten pessimistic spies rather than the two positive ones. A proper discussion may have led to the conclusion that maybe they should hold off a little before attacking Canaan. Moses could have instituted some months of military training, in the desert to prepare them for the ordeal. He could have begun a strict prayer regime, invoking God’s help and a few more miracles may have bought the peoples conviction that they could succeed. But the people pre-empted any possibility of such a negotiation by straight way wanting to stone Joshua and Caleb, and rejecting Moses and God, they began looking for a new leader to take them back to Egypt. Their punishment is for these actions; for the loss of faith in God, not for the rejection of the positive spies’ report.
Exodus 23:2 has the phrase ‘You shall not follow a multitude to do evil.’ While it is necessary for the smooth running of any society to accept the majority decision, there are times, when the majority has got it morally wrong. At those times it is necessary to stand out against the multitude. The Israelites decision to follow the interpretation of the ten spies over the two was not morally wrong. Their desire to stone the two most certainly was. Their failure of faith in God who had their best interests at heart was also wrong. It is for these things that they were punished.
Sybil A. Sheridan