We use our eyes to navigate the world around us, and we believe that what we see is real.
Years ago when I worked at the Rochester Institute of Technology, the printing department acquired an expensive new machine that could manipulate images. They digitally took a photo of the Eiffel Tower and “moved” it to locations around the world. The pictures were perfect, and it was disconcerting to see such a familiar landmark in the wrong places.
There were serious debates about using the full capacities of the machine, because of the ramifications of being able to manipulate photographs, making the unreal appear to be real. Today I can do the same thing with my smart phone, and it is a given that any photograph we see might have been altered, and probably was.
We trust our memories almost as much as we trust our eyes, but here too we are mistaken. Our memories are colored by our subsequent experiences. Memories change with the passing of time. Sometimes the memory fades, and sometimes we believe that we can remember every small detail. But when we compare our version of the same event with someone else, details change. We saw it differently; we remember it differently.
And so it is no surprise that the 12 spies who Moses sent to scout the Promised Land in this week’s Torah portion came back with different reports, even though they traveled together and supposedly saw the same sights. Ten of the scouts were frightened by what they saw, telling tales of powerful men and well-guarded cities. Two, Caleb and Joshua, argued that an invasion of the country would be successful, to which the other ten responded with exaggerations of what they had seen — suddenly instead of being powerful the men of the land were giants, and they themselves seemed like grasshoppers.
But what if these conflicting messages came from within Moses himself, and not the reports of others? The Torah portion is called Sh’lach L’cha, which can be translated as “send [men] for yourself ” but could also mean “send to yourself.” Perhaps Moses was being asked to look deep inside of himself. Perhaps we are looking into the mind of someone deeply conflicted, who wants to lead his people forward but is afraid of what he might find. Perhaps the conversation between the two sets of spies is Moses arguing with himself, filled with confusion and worry about the future.
And when we hear the people crying out, “It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!” perhaps what we hear is Moses longing to return to the known, rather than face the unknown. As bad as Egypt was, as hard as being a slave could be, at least it was dependable, knowable.
When I read the story of the spies this way, I get a glimpse into the psyche of a lonely leader, a man who spoke face-to-face with God and yet could not see God’s Face.
We see our lives as straight lines, with the present a point somewhere in the middle, and the past and future stretching into the distance on either side. Looking back, we see our lives as we remember them. Looking forward, we see shifting clouds, decisions and choices, roads to be taken and roads not to be taken.
Sometimes, seeing isn’t believing. Sometimes, we need to look within, using a different kind of sight. When we must scout out within ourselves our hopes and dreams for tomorrow, using our inner vision to recognize the imagined giants that hold us back.