By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
I have faith in the people. They will not consent to disunion. Let them know the truth, and the country is safe.
– Abraham Lincoln
“Truth”, what is it? Is your “truth” the same as mine? Is anything “factual”? Can facts be fungible? Are there really “alternative facts”?
We have had too many occasions to comment on the coarseness of our age. Perhaps no single aspect of our angry discourse is the seeming inability to agree on a common narrative, an agreed-upon truth upon which we can base our opinions and positions. We are inundated with a flood of “fake news” – and if not “fake news” then the accusation of fake news.
This kind of information is a kind of propaganda that relies on deliberate misinformation that is communicated by traditional media and, in the most incendiary manner, by social media. Its purpose, unlike advertising – which often strains credulity – is not profit but to mislead, to confuse, to overwhelm with an ultimate purpose to undermine agencies, people or entities upon which most people had trusted.
We might think of “fake news” as a product of our own polarized political environment or, for those with the wisdom to still remember, with the propaganda machine that powered Nazi Germany; that is, we think of it as a “modern development”, something that came about at the same time as mass communication. We might think of it as a modern tool to cow the people.
The Rambam taught that man, being a social animal, “…is to be drawn in his opinions and his actions after his friends and companions.” That is, we are primed by our natures to believe – and be responsive to – what we hear and learn from our friends. It is for this reason that the Rambam counsels that we, “…dwell amongst righteous and wise individuals.” By doing so, we can keep our distance from the wicked.
We must all be careful of the company we keep, and the information we encounter. Certainly, that is true now. It was true for the Rambam. It has always been so. Fake news is not a function of media but of our inherent natures, and it has plagued us through the generations of our history.
Has there ever been a greater or more damaging example of Fake News and its awful consequences than our own experience with the 12 meraglim? The twelve had been sent to scout the Land, despite God’s promise to our forefathers, to Moshe, and to the People themselves. The truth was plain, the Land would be delivered to us, but fear and doubt was ever present in the people and their lack of faith created the perfect environment for Fake News to take root. Never mind God’s promises, the people demanded the meraglim be sent to see for themselves. God acceded to the people, hoping they might learn from their doubt.
“Send forth men, if you please, and let them spy out the Land…” Shelach lecha [lit. for yourself] anashim. Rashi teaches that when the people came to Moshe, demanding that the meraglim be sent to survey the land and report back, he consulted with God who responded, “I have told them that the Land is good. But since they question Me, I will let them test My veracity at the risk of being misled and losing their chance to enter the Land.”
Moshe had no doubt that God had promised the Land. That promise was integral to His saving the nation from Egypt’s bondage, to bring them to the Promised Land. They were free because of God’s grace.
But if Moshe was so certain, why did he take their demand to God? Why did he “humor” their fear and doubt? Ultimately, he did so because it was his hope and expectation that by doing so, he would make clear that their request was foolhardy. Chazal offer a parable to this to elucidate this point, A man wants to buy a donkey but insists that he must first test it by taking the donkey “to both mountains and valleys?” Certainly, the seller agrees without hesitation. Seeing the seller’s confidence, the buyer is assured he has nothing to fear and so forgoes the test. So too, Moshe was confident that when the People saw his confidence in sending the meraglim they would realize there was nothing to fear. The Land is theirs. God promised it. There was no need for a “test run.”
Sadly, he was wrong. And the ensuing disaster continues to plague us, as it has through the annals of Jewish history.
In his very first comment on the Parasha Rashi points out that the episode of the meraglim follows immediately after the incident of Miriam speaking ill of Moshe and her consequent punishment.
No sooner had Miriam been punished for her malicious gossip than the meraglim were pushing forward, having learned nothing from Miriam’s experience. As the Midrash Tanchuma says bluntly, u’rshayim eilu rau ve’lo lakchu mussar – “and these evil ones saw, and drew no conclusion.” They not only learned nothing from Miriam’s fate, they repeated her mistake.
Human beings make mistakes. God did not create us perfect. But, God did create us with the eyes to see and ears to hear and the potential for wisdom. Being human, we can learn from our mistakes as well as the mistakes of others.
This is the reason Shelach follows immediately after Miriam’s incident – so we can contemplate the error of not learning from prior mistakes. The famed Mirrer Mashgiach Rav Yeruchem Levovitz expounds on the importance of learning from our own experience and the experiences of others. Over a lifetime, he says, we each see and observe many things, and each has a lesson that can and should be derived. There are successes, failures, positive and negative situations – and each has something to teach us. Going through life with open, sharp eyes and vision, we inevitably will learn, grow, draw conclusions from all we see, hear, from each event and experience… if we refuse to learn and draw necessary conclusions from life’s events and experiences, we will inevitably repeat yesterday’s mistakes. And it is for this too, that the spies are condemned.
We have eyes to see. We have wisdom by which to assess what we see and hear. We know the truth. We can dismiss Fake News. And yet…
Studies have been done in which twenty people are placed in a room, nineteen of whom are in on the study and only one is a subject. The nineteen make outlandish observations, that “up is down” or “white is black”. When the one is asked to weigh in, rather than speak the truth he knows, he spouts the absurdity that he’d heard from the other nineteen. Up is down. White is black.
But it is not!
What do the meraglim report? Ten of the twelve return with Fake News! This land, “…consumes its inhabitants.” Their evil report creates fear and despair. The people do not want to continue to the Land.
The punishment for their gullibility? Forty years wandering in the desert, one year for each day the meraglim spent in the Land. Not even one of the generation that escaped bondage in Egypt would set foot in the Land. Not even one.
What was it about their sin that was so unforgivable? Weren’t they simply sharing their feelings? Giving voice to their very real fears?
Yes. And that is what distinguishes Fake News from real news. Fake News does not distinguish between fact and feelings, prejudice or truth. The spies were the first of the “talking heads”, pushing their opinion as fact. They were sent as information gatherers but returned as public opinion shapers. And the opinion they shaped was fear and trembling.
Sounds familiar, no?
CNN, Fox or MSNBC. They do not share news; they spew opinion designed to rile, foment fear, reaction, outrage and anger. Like the Israelites, we reject the truth for the thrill; for the comfort of our reinforcing bubbles. They rejected Joshua and Caleb’s “network” as being too pro-Moshe or pro-God. Fake News made it impossible to discern what was and wasn’t true and valid.
Even Yehoshua and Kalev – having seen the Land with their own eyes – were nearly sucked in by the Fake News. Only Divine intervention saved them!
We must beware lest we too think up is down and black is white!