Becoming Twilight People

We begin our Torah portion with a minor textual dilemma. By the time we end the portion, the Israelites will have faced a major spiritual dilemma - and failed. I think the two dilemmas are related.

We begin our Torah portion with a minor textual dilemma. By the time we end the portion, the Israelites will have faced a major spiritual dilemma - and failed. I think the two dilemmas are related.

The major spiritual dilemma comes about when the Israelites send twelve men (one from each tribe) to scout out the land of Canaan and spy on its inhabitants in preparation for war. The twelve spies return from their expedition with tales of how wonderful the land is, a place of true bounty! But rather than getting the people excited for their pending new home, the spies gloomily report that the inhabitants are fearsome, some are literal giants, and there is no way they could ever hope to defeat them in battle. Only two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, seek to maintain perspective and trust in God, although no one seems to listen to them. God becomes angry, then threatens to destroy the people and replace the Israelite nation with a new one descending from Moses. (Moses declines.) The people panic and say they will march into Canaan immediately and prove their worthiness, but without God’s permission many of them are massacred. The surviving members of that generation of Israelites are sentenced to wander the desert until they die out, over the course of forty years. Their fears about being incapable of entering the land of Canaan become a self-fulfilling prophecy. All around, it is a bit of a community organizing disaster story, and a major tragic turning point in the Torah.

The minor textual dilemma is embedded in the first description we hear of these twelve spies: “Send men (anashim) to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man (ish echad) from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain (nasi) among them” (Numbers 13:2). God instructs Moses to send men. Specifically, a man from each tribe. So far so good. Then it says that this man must be a nasi, a chieftain. Reading this, you might assume that it was the tribal leaders who went on this ill-fated quest, but the listed names differ from the previous listing of each nasi a few chapters earlier. If it wasn’t the nasi who went as a spy, why are the spies called nasi’im? Each of the medieval interpreters give us different ways to solve the dilemma.

Chizkuni (13th century France) cleverly re-arranges the sentence to read: Each nasi will send someone… (rather than being the one sent). This works great, except grammatically.

Ovadiah Sforno (16th century Italy) interprets nasi as “someone who excels - among his whole tribe - in knowing the matter [of scouting out] the land.” Clearly a valuable qualification! The only problem with this interpretation is that a nasi is plainly different from someone who is an expert on scouting out the land.

Yosef Bechor Shor (12th century France) suggests that nasi means the people had to be of sufficient status that when they brought back gloomy reports the people were unnerved. These were leaders that the people looked up to, even if they weren’t the literal chieftains. This idea seems potent, but why not just call them “leaders” like the very next verse does, rather than the top tribal chieftain?

Rashbam (12th century France) declares that these brave men earned the title nasi, “chieftain”, by virtue of their having volunteered. Now here is a practice still prevalent in our time, motivating and rewarding volunteers by giving them epic-sounding names. Still, it seems a bit of a stretch.

In reading these commentaries, it seems clear that we don’t have any clarity about why the text calls the scouts “chieftains.” And here is the opening to connect this minor textual dilemma to the dramatic failure that is this story’s main focus. Rather than worrying about what specifically nasi means here, if we zoom out and notice the over-the-top descriptors of these scouts, we see a pattern.

“Send men, one man from each tribe, chieftains!” (In the next verse too, the scouts are referred to again as “men, leaders of the tribes.”) It seems almost a little too descriptive, as if the text is already starting to overcompensate for the unmanly humiliation most of the men will undergo. They will see giants and feel small in comparison (“like grasshoppers”). They leave men and come back boys, afraid and powerless. When they are called out for it, they “man up” and overcorrect, assembling themselves into a hypermasculine battalion and rush foolishly into battle.

The piling up of labels betrays an anxiety about who the people are supposed to be. They struggle to connect to a God of radical freedom, The Ever-Becoming, The Source of All, The One Who Spans All Spectrums. Their self-conception is too limited, a rigid understanding of masculinity that sets them up to fail to see beyond a bigger-is-better battlefield. The scouts fail because they can’t imagine other ways of being. What if the scouts had included women and gender-queer folx?

In our moment in time, it has never been so important for Jewish community to reflect the radical diversity of who Jews are. We are still wandering the archetypal wilderness in search of a better world, and only when we practice true belonging with each other will we finally glimpse where we are going. Rabbi Reuben Zellman, the first openly transgender rabbinical student accepted to Hebrew Union College, wrote a beautiful rendition of the prayer Maariv Aravim (recited in the evening) that feels appropriate to offer this week for Pride Shabbat:

Twilight People Prayer
“As the sun sinks and the colors of the day turn, we offer a blessing for the twilight,
for twilight is neither day nor night, but in-between.
We are all twilight people. We can never be fully labeled or defined.
We are many identities and loves, many genders and none. We are in between roles, at the intersection of histories, or between place and place.
We are crisscrossed paths of memory and destination, streaks of light swirled together. We are neither day nor night.
We are both, neither, and all.
May the sacred in-between of this evening suspend our certainties, soften our judgments, and widen our vision.
May this in-between light illuminate our way to the God who transcends all categories and definitions.
May the in-between people who have come to pray be lifted up into this twilight.
We cannot always define; we can always say a blessing.
Blessed are You, God of all,
who brings on the twilight.”

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Jay LeVine