The shootings in Washington this week introduced me to a phrase from American literature that I had never heard before. Bret Stephens quoted it in his New York Times column: it comes from Philip Roth, the great Jewish-American novelist. Roth, in referring to American violence in its many forms, called this phenomenon “the indigenous American berserk.” Stephens suggests that the DC shooter “seems a representative type: a relatively normal man, with a seemingly normal life, a bit of a loser, a few axes to grind. Then: Boom. Another awful postal moment, stirred by frustration or loneliness or impulse, loosely yoked to a political cause.”
In reading this week’s Torah portion, Shelakh-Lekha, we encounter another wilderness disaster. Moshe sends scouts to reconnoiter the land, and they return with a report laced with pessimism. On the heels of the complaints about menu options in last week’s portion, and with anticipation for the demagogic Korah’s rebellion next week, is the Book of Numbers, Sefer Bemidbar, a record of what we might call “the indigenous Israelite neurotic?” Do these narratives suggest to us that we as a People are hardwired to find the worst no matter how good we have it?
With this question in mind, here’s another question, specifically about the parshah: the scouts were instructed to bring back a report; they brought back a report. They described what they saw, and even did so accurately. So what did they do wrong? In fact, the great 15th-century commentator Abravanel asks this question. Through a close reading of the text on Shabbat morning, we will find out what he thinks, and then we can consider the original question. Are the 10 nay-saying scouts representations of an “indigenous Israelite neurotic?” As a people, are we them, or are we the remaining two scouts, Yehoshu’a and Kalev, who broke with party lines and instead saw hope?
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,