So I’m listening to a podcast, as I frequently do as I drive down the mountain. They are talking about the near destruction of the Walt Disney company in the mid 80’s. Cash strapped from budget overruns on building EPCOT Center, an investment group comes in to attempt a hostile takeover. What I learned was there is a common ploy to fend off a hostile takeover. The thing to do is intentionally make your company look as unappealing as possible. This is done by taking on lots of extra debt and devaluing stock. So Disney spends 200 million dollars to buy a real estate company, and then 337 million dollars to buy the Gibson Greeting Card Company of Cincinnati, OH. Neither purchase makes much sense for the entertainment company. But through these actions, they intentionally make the company less appealing to a potential buyer. It is kind of the classic Scooby Doo plot where they fake having a haunted house to scare away the new owners. Instead of a haunted house, it was a haunted balance sheet. And they would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids. This strategy always failed on Scooby Doo, and it actually almost backfired on Disney in the 80’s. It was a fairly harmless deception, and it is an accepted finance strategy. Still the idea of using deception to frighten people away is strange, especially when we are taught that welcome is a value, not to mention honesty. Just the same, it is intriguing and is a subject we encounter in this week’s Torah portion.
In Parashat Shelach Lecha, Moses sends 12 spies to check out the land of Canaan. They are supposed to report back to verify the goodness of this land, their destination, the land which has been promised to them. When they return, they declare it is indeed a fruitful place flowing with milk and honey, but 10 out of the 12 spies declare that it is too dangerous to go there.
“It is a land that devours its people. The people are giants,” they say. “We felt like grasshoppers compared to them, and so we must have looked to them.” This last part is rather important, and often overlooked. They say, “we looked like grasshoppers.” Just how good are these spies if they are seen during their mission? Even worse, they know they have been seen. Rashi tells us the spies have heard the Canaanites talking about ants in the vineyards that look like people. In the Talmud, it tells us the same Canaanites see men like grasshoppers in a tree. So we have 12 spies hiding in a tree trying to be inconspicuous. It’s like a Keystone Cops version of the Torah. These are the worst spies ever. They have been made, and then they fall for a clever trick. Rather than attack or imprison them, the Canaanites show the spies exactly what they want them to see. Their hope is they will go back to their brethren and convince them not to come. It really is brilliant. Various commentators tell us, that the land devouring its people alludes to the many funerals the spies witness in the short time they are there. We can assume maybe these funerals are staged to make the land seem dangerous. We are also told that the men of the land, all the ones they see are of great size. We read nothing about the men they do not see. This means only the largest of the men are paraded before the spies. This also opens the door to the possibility that these giant men are ringers. They are identified as Nephilim, which can be interpreted as the amazing ones. The spies are amazed to see them, perhaps because they do not really belong there. They are hired to look menacing and deter the Israelite invasion.
Anyhow, we wonder why do the Canaanites have to go through all this trouble? We are told they are stronger, and they know they are mightier. They should have nothing to fear… Yet their strategy of deterrence is born of fear. We gain this insight by turning to the Haftarah portion from the book of Joshua. We encounter a similar spying episode. Instead of hiding in a tree, the spies hide in the house of a woman name Rahav. After she sends away the soldiers who had been looking for the spies, she tells the spies everyone in her land is afraid. “Dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the Land are quaking before you.” So if we step back and look at the story of the spies in Shelach Lecha, it is not about the spies’ fears. Rather it is about the unusual lengths people will go to when they are driven by fear and therefore a desire to repel strangers.
It is a surprising twist from the behavior we might expect from an enemy nation in the Torah. Putting on a show to deter the Israelites seems awfully quaint by biblical standards. One might expect more extreme deterrents like we read about with enemy nations. They do things like capturing and imprisoning the opposition without trial, then treating them with cruelty, forcing them to live in cramped, unsanitary conditions, showing little to no concern for the on-going nutrition and health concerns for those prisoners, some of who might die under those conditions in the custody of the Cannanite captors. All of these things could be effective deterrents to anyone else who dares cross the border. They would be a show of a very different kind from the one the Canaanites choose to perform.
Unfortunately, not everyone responds to fear of the stranger the same way. Our own nation in the current day has chosen to put on a show for potential asylum seekers and immigrant at our southern border. The show we put on is a display of unfairness coupled with cruelty. The intent is not to process these waves of potential immigrants, or even to punish the ones who cross illegally, as most of those detained are seeking a legal asylum process. No. This is about deterrence. I call this a show because it does not represent who we really are as a nation. Most of us still believe in Emma Lazarus’s poem which is engraved on the Stature of Liberty, “Give me your tired your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” We are a nation of immigrants who therefore have no cause to be afraid of immigrants. All of our ancestors were once feared for their capacity to be a drain on the system, or to take jobs away, or to bring crime corruption and disease with us. But history and experience have shown, in the main, this has not born out. Each wave of immigrants have found their place and made us a stronger, more prosperous nation. So truly, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Sadly, fear is driving our policy and causing, as it did for the Canaanites in our Torah portion, aberrant behaviors. Unfortunately, the psychological warfare is much worse than hiring giants and staging funeral. It is family separations, children in cages, lack of soap and blankets, unsanitary conditions, lack of medical care. The purpose for all of this, is not even about the people currently in detention centers. It is more cynical than that. As we cause permanent damage and suffering to thousands of children and thousands more adults, the apparent intent is to deter the next group of impoverished, desperate people from approaching our country. It will be years before we understand the humanitarian toll of our current policies, but it will not be legacy to be proud of. And yet, despite all of this, immigrants keep coming.
Perhaps they know something, that this cruelty is not who America really is, that this is just a temporary deception, and that we will eventually come to our senses as the beacon of freedom, decency, and compassion we have always claimed to be. Perhaps they are following the pattern of the two dissenting spies in our story, the ones who see the giants and the land devouring its people, and know in their hearts, it is still better than where they are in the barren wilderness, and where they have been as slaves. Or maybe they see through the act, and like the dissenting spies say, nevertheless “have no fear of this people.” And perhaps, most importantly, they keep coming because they still believe in the America that we have collectively forgotten to be.
In the Torah portion, the Canaanites choose between peaceful and violent deterrents. Surprisingly, they make a peaceful choice. Still it is a choice based on deception. What they fail to consider is a third option, the one our nation must return to, which is, when meeting the stranger who wishes to dwell with you, drop your baseless fears and open your gates with the knowledge the land is good. It is big enough and the resources are great enough. So please come, share them with us as neighbors. It is the honest choice, the peaceful choice, the humane choice.
May we soon see an end to cruelty as compassion reigns, and may those needing shelter and asylum find justice and fair opportunities to know the safety and prosperity that we enjoy, and to which all are entitled.