Thursday, May 30, 2013

"You Can't Handle the Truth"

One of the most famous lines in a movie was spoken by Jack Nicholson in "Ä Few Good Men". When on the stand and on trial and being pushed to share the truth about a particular controversial incident he said, "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!"

In this week's parsha of Shlach we see evidence that "handling the truth" is quite a challenge.
But lets start by contextualizing the reading. The portion this week tells us the story of the spies Moshe sent to explore the Land of Canaan in anticipation of the conquest.
Of the twelve men sent, all leaders of tribes, only Joshua and Caleb bring back a postive report. The others deliver a disheartening message. They talk of the difficulties that will be encountered in any attempt to conquer the land. The people take in the bad tidings to heart. They become overwhelmed with fear. They reject the positive reports of Joshua and Caleb. They reject the land.
Of all the sins of the generation of the Exodus this was the most grievous. Untill today we live with its consequences. The day of their sin became the day propitious for national tragedy throughout our history.
We know it as Tisha B'Av.

In this blog we look at the Torah as a mirror to ourselves. We try to see what the Torah has to say to each of us personally about who we are. For our purposes we need to look at the Israelites as a reflection of us and to ask how are we like our ancestors of old? What promised land are we rejecting and why?

This year I want to place the mirror before a particular piece of the story, one that is often passed over. It has to do with how we "handle the truth".
The Torah tells us that not only did the People believe the 10 spies rather than believe Joshua and Caleb, they became enraged at the two dissenting spies. After Joshua and Caleb made an impassioned plea to the nation not to rebel against G-d, telling them that G-d was with them, the land was good, the inhabitants vulnerable, and the conquest attainable, the Torah tells us, " And the nation made rumblings to stone them to death".
The Israelites were near ready to put Joshua and Caleb to death! And for what? For offering a different view, one that was in fact the truth!

Why was the nation so determined to rid themselves of the dissenting voices? Why did they feel the urge to kill Joshua and Caleb? Would it not have been enough to just reject their report?

I think the Torah is teaching us something vital about our own yearning for truth. It is teaching us that anytime we take a position or state a belief in such a way that we cannot tolerate dissent we need to suspect that our so called "truth" is really a self-serving belief. It may not be the truth at all! If we are really motivated to discern the truth we will never find alternative positions to our own threatening. On the contrary, we will welcome dissent as a means to be sure that we are in fact right, that
we have considered all possibilities.

That the People of Israel could not tolerate the views of Joshua and Caleb, so much so that they intended to kill them were it not for G-d's intervention, makes it most clear that their rejection of the land was not based on a true desire to know what was the good and the right thing to do, enter or not enter the land. Rejection of the right to dissent and the dissenter is the greatest proof that "we can't handle the truth".

Over and over throughout history we have seen persecution of dissent and dissenters.
The Catholic Church of the Inquisition, the radical Arab nations devotees to Islam, the Communists of the Stalinist era are striking examples. Each was so sure of their truth that they needed to eradicate alternative views and expunge those who held them. Yet the very acts of intolerance they displayed indicates the self-serving nature of the truth they embraced. They could not handle the truth if it was not consistant with their own assumptions, so they needed to make sure they would not be threatened by it.

You and I have our own challenges with "handling the truth". How often have we gotten into an argument over ideas and virtually killed the person, sometimes a friend, to preserve our "truth". How often do we find ourselves reacting to alternative approaches to our own as if they are threats we have to put down. If we truly can handle the truth we will welcome another's perspectives as a chance to perhaps make alterations in our "truth", to be more accurate, and yes sometimes to come to realize we had no "truth" at all.

Our reactions to those who differ from us is the greatest indicator of whether the values, beliefs, and truths we maintain are indeed coming from a desire to know the right and the good.

We need to be able to "handle the truth" no matter where it comes from if we are to know the truth!

Shabbat Shalom

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