BS”D By Briah Cahana June 19th 2020
The questions we ask directly impact what we will see and experience. They are the glasses that frame our realities and interactions, inform our compassion, critiques and action. They often are so embedded in our psyches, built up from previous knowledge both inherited and experienced, that we don’t even realize their presence and power. Nor do we often realize the possibility that we can ask other questions, provocative, open-ended, or probing ones that could turn our presumptions, situations and relations on their head, leading to different perspectives and outcomes.
The thematic focus of a gap-year program I attended a decade ago in Israel, called Kivunim, was learning how to cultivate our appetite to ask questions.* Asking questions is something that we do so naturally and obsessively as children when our imaginations and curiosity are expansive (5 year olds ask hundreds of questions a day, trying to make sense of the world and how it works and that number tapers off dramatically as we age.) On the program, Rabbi Lerea, our Jewish spiritual educator, would take our group to various locations and we would sit, observe and write a stream of questions for a half hour or longer. This meditative practice opened a space for curiosity to blossom anew and added a texture to our thoughts. He encouraged us to hold onto our questions, take them seriously and deepen them. ‘If you don’t take your own questions seriously, who will?’ Sitting so still, I would often connect to that which were more fixed: objects, nature, buildings, vendors. Later I wondered, what sounds and sights drew my attention? What surprised me? And what seemed neutral to me yet has an entire world of concern and interest for someone else? Going into the unfamiliar often sparks questions and curiosity, but this type of reflection can be asked in any circumstance to show our values and concerns.
In Parshat Shlach Lecha, Moshe sends 12 leaders of each tribe, to Eretz Kena’an to spy out or ‘tour’ vayaturu, the land and bring back a report to the people. He instructs them with questions to guide their assessments. 1) See the land—how is it? 2) and the people that dwells in it—is it strong or weak? 3) is it few or numerous? 4) and how is the land in which it dwells—is it good or is it bad? 5) And how are the cities in which it dwells—are they open or are they fortified? 6) And how is the land—is it fertile or is it lean? 7) Is there a tree in it or not? (Numbers 13:18-20). The nature of these questions is informational; a comparative check-list to better prepare the Israelites before entering the land that G-d has promised them. The scouts come back with the report responding to most of these questions: ‘It indeed flows with milk and honey and this is its fruits. But- the people that dwells in the Land is powerful, the cities are very greatly fortified, and we also saw there were offspring of the giant…’ (Numbers 12:27-28). However, the mission turns awry. The scouts continue with more criticism and claim that they will not be able to conquer the land, because the people are stronger than them (13:30). What was supposed to encourage the Israelites to enter the land backfires and the people wish to return to Egypt. G-d punishes the people by forcing them to wander the desert for 40 years and most of the scouts are overtaken by a plague. What was wrong with the report? The scouts were being honest in answering Moses’ list of questions, but they take an extra step and answer a question that was never asked: Can we conquer the land? And they answer no. This deep-dive into their own fears restricts everyone else’s hopes and ability to move forward.
The seeds of dispiritedness may have been planted originally with the questions that Moses poses. The dream of a land flowing with milk and honey is the land of possibility and openness (Exodus 3:17), not a land that is good or bad. It is the land to which G-d is taking the Israelites, leading them out of their enslavement and suffering. It is mythic, as they can taste the miracle of G-d’s presence with them in the harsh desert, as G-d protects them in the pillar of fire and cloud and feeds them with the manna. But Moses asks the scouts to look upon the land with a more practical, narrow lens that affects their experience and potentially restricts their faith. The land and the people speak for itself and G-d doesn’t appear in the set of questions guiding their evaluations. Many commentators learn from the word lecha in Shlach Lecha, that G-d was not in favor of sending in spies, but was responding to the people’s demand. They wanted to see how the dream measured up to reality. But in so doing, they showed less faith in the promise that G-d would guide them there. Thus, G-d telling Moses to send in spies was more of a concession than a blessing. In turn, perhaps, that is why Moses addresses the spies in very human practical concerns and doesn’t remind the spies that no matter what they see in this ‘dream land’ G-d will assist them in entering it.
Nevertheless, the last question that Moses asks the spies to address, “is there a tree in it or not?” stands out from the rest. The Zohar interprets the tree to refer to the tree of life as compared to the other questions which symbolize the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.** Not everything should be evaluated and filtered through our own reasoning, adding up all the positives and measuring them against the negatives. At the end of the list of questions, Moses is reminding the scouts to remember the Tree of Life, that there exists a world beyond Good and Bad. Belief in G-d is living in a world of expansiveness, curiosity and possibility. G-d is beyond binaries of the good and bad. The power of faith in Hashem resides in Caleb’s statement, “We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it!” Unfortunately, once we’re in a mindset of good and bad, the bad can easily take over and obfuscate the reality that life is full of possibility.
Poignantly, later in the Parsha, when G-d is at the height of anger and wishes to destroy the people, Moses boldly asks G-d a question that turns the anger around. If G-d were to destroy the people and not bring them to the land, what would have been the point of the Exodus? Are the people that powerful to undermine G-d’s greatest power?—G-d’s power in being “slow to anger, abundant in kindness, forgiver of iniquity…” (14: 18). Moses is essentially reminding G-d of the Tree of Life, the tree of forgiveness, expansiveness and softening, rather than the Tree of Good and Evil that limits faith and trust. We all need reminders to soften our gaze and open the realms of possibilities rather than limit our relationships and experiences into the category of Good or Bad. Let’s eat from the Tree of Life that which sustains and inspires rather than that which divides and conquers.
May we take the time to learn how the questions we ask either overtly or covertly shape our realities and learn to look with more openness and compassion when our tendency is to judge with harshness and binaries.
* A wonderful book that we read in preparation for the year is called Outside Lies Magic by John Silgoe.
**Thank you to Nadav Slovin for bringing to my attention this notion.