Complicity and Conscience: Rosh Hodesh Tammuz 5780

The Torah says that Caleb ben Yifuneh was blessed with “a different spirit,” and that this differentiation allowed him alone to survive the curse of death in the desert. At Numbers 14:23, God tells Moses that the entire generation that had witnessed divine miracles in Egypt and the desert but had nevertheless acted testily ten times would never see the land, but rather die in the wilderness. The next verse reads, “But my servant Caleb had a different spirit with him, and followed me, so I will bring him to the land where he had come, and his seed will inherit it.”

This verse occasions many questions. Why only Caleb? What about Joshua? Why is Caleb called “my servant,” an honorific used sparingly in the Torah (though Avot D’Rabbi Natan gives 18 examples)? And what is his different spirit? Our commentators have much to say on this and more. Joshua acquitted himself well, but perhaps only because Moses gave him special attention and protection. His survival is therefore not entirely earned. And at the crucial moment in the prior chapter, Caleb alone spoke out against the evil report of the spies, silencing them with his confident belief in God. For this reason, he is honored with the title “my servant” and singled out to enter the Land. But what was his different spirit?

Midrash BeMidbar Rabbah claims that Caleb maintained independent judgment even as his colleagues were swept up with a tide of paranoia. Further, he was strategic in sharing his thoughts, initially implying that he was with the other spies, but at the crucial moment of maximum impact, speaking out his truth. His colleagues vouched for Caleb, and so he jumped on a bench and loudly disagreed with their report. Had he spoken too early, his voice would have been silenced, but he chose his moment—with Moses and the entire nation listening, he silenced the other spies and affirmed that God would lead the people to success. Later in life (Joshua 14:7) Caleb recalled his act of speaking his heart at a time when his peers were pushing conformity based on fear and cowardice.

Of course, one could criticize Caleb for keeping quiet during the earlier stages of conversation. Perhaps he could have influenced the other spies had he spoken up during their tour. Perhaps he was tempted to join their counsel, to remain complicit, and even to seize power from Moses? What was going on within Caleb as he decided which spirit to follow, and when to break ranks with the others? One might call him a hypocrite or a hero, but I find it more interesting to imagine him struggling to discern and do the right thing.

Let’s bring the drama within Caleb’s heart into dialogue with our own day. Anne Applebaum’s cover story for The Atlantic,On the Nature of Complicity: Trump’s Enablers and the Judgment of History” compares our current moment to the depth of the Cold War, and the moral dilemmas faced by leaders in East Germany. Why did some, truly most, leaders remain complicit, and how did a few people retain their moral independence and eventually break with the party? What can such examples teach us about the current moment when many powerful politicians have abandoned previously stated principles to follow an immoral and dangerous demagogue?

Applebaum cites the Polish intellectual and defector Czeslaw Milosz, whose book, The Captive Mind, I read in college. I pulled it off the shelf and spent the final hours of Shabbat Shlah Lekha with his account of the allure of complicity. It is not just that people in times of oppression are afraid to speak their truth. They convince themselves that there is no alternative, or that the ends will justify the means, or they are seduced by the potential benefits of complicity. Milosz imagines that he might convince himself of the health benefits of swallowing live frogs. He might swallow one and even a second, but by the third, his stomach would rebel. So too with “the method” of Stalinist ideology. He could convince himself to go along for a while, but eventually he could no longer stomach complicity.

Anticipating harsh judgment—how could you ever have gone along, even for a moment–Milosz cites an aphorism at the start of his book (from “an old Jew”—cringe). A person who is right 55% of the time, “that’s very good and there’s no wrangling,” and if they are right 60% of the time then they have great luck and should thank God, but if they are 75% right, that’s suspicious, and “whoever says he’s 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.” The temptation to be 100% right, and to despise those whose views are nuanced and circumscribed is understandable. The courage to break free and speak a contrary truth is precious and powerful.

This weekend was a turning point of sorts for some Republicans who have been obsequious to the president, and are now beginning to defy him. Perhaps they are only opportunists, sensing a turn in the tide, and preparing for a post-Trump future. One can despise them for hypocrisy or pure cowardice. Such judgments may be well deserved, but they are not especially helpful. Hearts need to turn, internal truths need to be spoken, and new alliances formed if this country is to embark on the profound revision required of us. Even those who have not been seduced by the hateful speech and actions of the President bear responsibility for failing to speak out as early and effectively as possible.

I don’t know what it will take to restructure this country as a land of liberty and justice for all. Racial injustice is hard-baked into this nation, and as a “white” person in America I have benefited from this perversion. Furthermore, I don’t know what changes will suffice to salvage the ecosystem and allow us to survive on the land altogether. The steps I have taken to lessen the devastation are pitifully inadequate. I have an inkling that the changes required will be painful, and I can easily recognize the allure of carrying on as before. We are living in a moment of uprising. The voices of outrage and activism can awaken sleeping hearts and open mouths to speak essential truths. Now is the moment to step up on the stool like Caleb, to speak for what is righteous and true, and to change our ways.

The Hebrew months of Tammuz and Av are our time to reckon with the destructive forces of history. They also contain the seeds of redemption, with seven weeks from 9 Av to Rosh HaShanah designated for introspection and change. It is time to cultivate a different spirit, to discern our deepest conscience, and to prepare ourselves to speak and act with courage and conviction.

במדבר פרק יג, ל

(ל) וַיַּהַס כָּלֵב אֶת הָעָם אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר עָלֹה נַעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ כִּי יָכוֹל נוּכַל לָהּ:

במדבר פרק יד, כד

(כד) וְעַבְדִּי כָלֵב עֵקֶב הָיְתָה רוּחַ אַחֶרֶת עִמּוֹ וַיְמַלֵּא אַחֲרָי וַהֲבִיאֹתִיו אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר בָּא שָׁמָּה וְזַרְעוֹ יוֹרִשֶׁנָּה:

במדבר רבה (וילנא) פרשת שלח פרשה טז

יט [יג, ל] ויהס כלב, שבתחלה אמר להם אני עמכם בעצה ובלבו היה לומר אמת שנא’ (יהושע יד) ואשיב אותו דבר כאשר עם לבבי ואחי אשר היו עמי המסו את לב העם וכן הקדוש ברוך הוא מעיד עליו שנא’ (במדבר יד) ועבדי כלב עקב היתה רוח אחרת עמו כשבאו המרגלים אמרו נאמן עלינו כלב מיד עמד על הספסל ושיתק את כל ישראל שהיו מצווחין על משה שנא’ ויהס כלב והם היו סבורין שהיה אומר לה”ר =לשון הרע= לפיכך שתקו פתח ואמר עלה נעלה וירשנו אותה כי יכול נוכל לה מיד חלקו כנגדו ואמרו לא נוכל לעלות אל העם וגו’.

יהושע פרק יד פסוק ז

בֶּן אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה אָנֹכִי בִּשְׁלֹחַ מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד ה’ אֹתִי מִקָּדֵשׁ בַּרְנֵעַ לְרַגֵּל אֶת הָאָרֶץ וָאָשֵׁב אֹתוֹ דָּבָר כַּאֲשֶׁר עִם לְבָבִי:

מסכתות קטנות מסכת אבות דרבי נתן נוסחא ב פרק מג

[שמנה עשר] אלו נקראו עבדים. אברהם נקרא עבד שנאמר והרביתי את זרעך בעבור אברהם עבדי (בראשית כ”ו כ”ד). יעקב נקרא עבד שנאמר ואתה אל תירא עבדי יעקב (ישעי’ מ”ד ב’). ישראל נקראו עבדים שנאמר כי לי בני ישראל עבדים (ויקרא כ”ה נ”ה). משיח נקרא עבד שנאמר הן עבדי אתמך בו (ישעי’ מ”ב א’). מלאכים נקראו עבדים שנאמר הן בעבדיו לא יאמין (איוב ד’ י”ח). משה נקרא עבד שנאמר לא כן עבדי משה (במדבר י”ב ז’). יהושע נקרא עבד [דכתיב וימת יהושע בן נון עבד ה’ (יהושע כ”ד כ”ט). כלב נקרא עבד מנין] שנאמר ועבדי כלב עקב היתה (במדבר י”ד כ”ד). דוד נקרא עבד שנאמר (ועבדי דוד) [ודוד עבדי] נשיא להם לעולם (יחזקאל ל”ז כ”ה). ישעיהו נקרא עבד שנאמר ויאמר ה’ כאשר הלך עבדי ישעיהו (ישעיה כ’ ג’). אליקים נקרא עבד שנאמר וקראתי לעבדי לאליקים (שם כ”ב כ’). איוב נקרא עבד שנאמר השמת לבך אל עבדי איוב (איוב ב’ ג’). דניאל נקרא עבד שנאמר דניאל עבד אלהא חייא (דניאל ו’ כ”א). חנניה מישאל ועזריה נקראו עבדים שנאמר שדרך מישך ועבד נגו עבדוהי די אלהא עילאה (שם ג’ כ”ו). נבוכדנצר נקרא עבד ולא הוה שוה לו שנאמר אל נבוכדנצר מלך בבל עבדי (ירמיה כ”ה ט’). זרובבל נקרא עבד שנאמר בעת ההיא נאם ה’ אקחך זרובבל בן שאלתיאל עבדי (חגי ב’ כ”ג):