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yesh omrim

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The rhetoric of despair

21 June 2004

The essential form of the yeshivishe drash is this: First, present a kashe—two statements from the same canonical text that seem to contradict one another. Then, present the teretz—an interpretation of both statements that resolves the contradiction.

Take the following verse, a statement from the spies regarding the Land of Israel: “It is a land that devours its inhabitants, and men of stature comprised the whole nation that we saw there” (Numbers 13:32). Contradiction!

The medieval commentators, of course, noticed the kashe, and provided various teratzim. Rashi, citing a midrash (Sotah 35a), says that God caused many Canaanites to die while the spies were passing through the land, so that the natives would be so busy burying their dead that they wouldn’t notice the spies; thus the remark about the land devouring its inhabitants. Nachmanides and Sforno interpret the spies as saying that the food, water, and air in Israel are so poor that only giants can survive there.

But there is another interpretation possible: that the spies were contradicting themselves. They were not trying to present a rational argument for turning around and going back to Egypt: they were trying to manipulate the emotions of their audience. With such rhetoric, it’s more important to be emotionally consistent than logically consistent.

Unfortunately, when Joshua and Caleb tried to rebut the other ten spies, they were not emotionally consistent: they “tore their clothes, and said to the whole congregation of Israelites: ‘The land that we passed through to scout, the land is very, very good’” (14:6–7). It was logically consistent for them to tear their clothes in sorrow over the revolt that the other spies were fomenting, and then speak with optimism about the Land of Israel. But these two actions were not emotionally consistent.

Last year: How are tzitzit supposed to prevent you from sinning? The standard explanations are farfetched; my wife proposes an alternative.