Seeing the Land – Between Empirical Sight and Textual Sight

mascettiBy Yaacov Mascetti*

When you live in Israel, everything is political. And when you accept to live a religious lifestyle, chances are you will have to face moments of inevitable politicized interpretation of your actions or of the consequences of your actions. Buy a house, cover your head, wear certain kind of pants, buy a car, drive to your relatives in the north (through the Jordan valley or within the 1948 borders?), etc. Anything can carry a political charge. I personally find it somewhat nauseating, at worst, and exhausting, at best. But it is also, to my utterly postmodern sensitivity, also a clear demonstration of the fact that we are always engaging reality from within a set network of values, and we always project our expectations and a-priori values onto what may appear to be the “thing in-and-of-itself.” We never truly perceive reality – we always perceive a filtered existence, a scenario painted with the nuanced colors of our understanding.

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: ’Send thou men, that they may spy out the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel; of every tribe of their fathers shall ye send a man, every one a prince among them.’ And Moses sent them from the wilderness of Paran according to the commandment of the LORD; all of them men who were heads of the children of Israel. (Num. 13:1-3)

In this week’s portion of the Torah, Shelach Lecha, the objective of the “men” sent by Moses is to “see the land, what it is” – these observers are to report back to Moses on what the land looks like. The report requested is, apparently, a neutral one, although he does ask them to be precise on whether the land is “good or bad” – connotations are apparently not part of the job. Then he concludes thus:

And be ye of good courage, and bring of the fruit of the land.

The perception of the land is a moment of trial – this group of men is required to strengthen their outlook on reality, work their way from a Divine commandment, through the disillusionment of a reality check, all the way to a more solid belief in the possible success of the Divine objective. Moses appears to be conscious of the fact that the sight of the land, of the difficulties standing on the way of the Israelites towards their final redemption, is a potential source of discomfort – for this reason, it would appear, seeing is not a merely physical act, but rather one that is performed together with a rational filtering of the information. We could even say that it is the act of seeing that turns the land into good or bad, fat or thin – the eyes of the observers sent into the land of Canaan are the center of attention of this parsha.

And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.

Subjectivity and objectivity are entirely confused here. It is not only that others will see you just as you present yourself – it is, rather, a mingling of the subjective self-awareness that fashions the objective perception of who and what you are. The Israelites confuse the two in a moment of discomfort and cognitive lapse. From this moment on, the narrative the ten men weave around this visual perception becomes the sole filter through which the entire people will see the Promised Land – not, that is, through the words of the Divine promise, but rather through the lens of a reality that is entirely ruled by power, strength, aggressive reactions and physical potency. In this sense, sight is the allegory of the cognitive relation between Israel and God – seeing the land is not enough, for one has to see it through words, through a narrative made of understanding and acceptance. There are difficulties, sure, and there are giants and Canaanites and other peoples, and fortified cities: but if these men, sent to see the Land, solely allow themselves to perceive through a quasi-cynical set of values, judging reality as a network of forceful actions and aggressive retaliations (sound familiar?), all they actually do is present to the people their fears, and their lapsed incapacity to see through the text, through the words of the Divine promise. Seeing, as Moses means it, is an act of humility, an act of understanding, of acceptance. Not a ruthless and scientific / objective / empirical survey of the reality here, in the land of Israel.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.