Rabbi Weinreb's Parsha Column, Shelach: "Appearances and Reality"

Even the most casual observer of human behavior knows that people are not always what they seem to be. We all have a public face, or façade, which is often inconsistent with our inner, or "real", selves. In fact, we typically have more than one such façade in our repertoire. Our choice of which facade to use depends upon the social situation in which we find ourselves.

Does this mean that we are all imposters?  The Psalmist confesses: "I said in a rash moment that all men are liars (Psalms 116:110)." Was he correct in his assertion? Or was his pessimistic assessment of human nature limited to just one "rash moment"?

One Talmudic Sage, Rabban Gamaliel, was so convinced that people are not what they seem to be that he based the admissions policy of his academy upon this belief. He declared that no one could enter his study hall unless "his inside was like his outside". Before one could enter this academy he had to somehow prove that he was in fact as pious and as learned as he appeared to be. If Rabban Gamaliel, or whoever served as his admissions officer, detected a discrepancy between the would-be student's exterior appearance and his "real" interior qualifications, he would be denied entrance into the study hall.

Luckily for those students whose "insides" did not match their "outsides", and luckily for the future of Torah study, Rabban Gamaliel’s colleagues disputed his policy and eventually overturned it.

Nevertheless, Rabban Gamaliel’s wariness regarding surface appearances remained sound advice in the opinion of at least one later sage, Rabbi Meir. He offers us this counsel: "Do not look at the container but at what it contains, for a new flask may contain old wine, and an old flask may not contain anything, even new wine (Pirkei Avot 4:27)."

Moreover, whereas Rabban Gamaliel was suspicious of pious exteriors which might belie impious interiors, Rabbi Meir went even further with his advice, recognizing that the reverse might also obtain. Negative appearances might conceal quite positive characteristics buried beneath the surface.

Commentators remind us that Rabbi Meir continued to learn Torah from his previous master, Elisha Ben Avuya, even after the latter rejected his own past and behaved in a most sacrilegious manner. Rabbi Meir "cast away the rind, and ate the fruit". Rabbi Meir looked beyond the container, the impious exterior of Elisha ben Avuya, and discerned the legitimate teachings which were contained within.

In this week's Torah portion, Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41), we encounter two startling examples of the discrepancy between external appearances and internal realities. The first example is found in the person of Caleb. You will remember that 10 of the 12 spies returned from their mission with a discouraging report, denigrating the Promised Land. Caleb and Joshua were the only two who demurred and insisted that "the land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land… A land that flows with milk and honey… (Numbers 14:7-8).”  The people gullibly swallowed the spies’ report, and ignored the minority opinion of Caleb and Joshua.

The Almighty responded: "… None of the men who have seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt… Shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers…" The faithful Caleb, however, was excluded from that response: "But My servant Caleb, because he was imbued with a different spirit… him will I bring into the land…"

What precisely is the meaning of "he was imbued with a different spirit"? Rashi explains: "He had two 'spirits’, one in his mouth and one in his heart. To the spies he said, 'I am with you in your scheme.' But in his heart he intended to speak the truth. He was thus able to silence them; because they were convinced he was on their side."

Caleb had an exterior façade and an interior reality. On the exterior, he allied himself with the spies, but in his interior, in his heart, he contained the truth.

Caleb then is not only an example of the universal discrepancy between "inner" and "outer" that characterizes all humans. He illustrates that sometimes it is desirable and meritorious to feign a surface appearance, even if it totally contradicts one's internal convictions.

I am an avid reader of first-person reports of prisoners of war and of how they managed to survive years of isolation and torture. I specifically recall the account of one of those imprisoned in North Vietnam in what came to be called the Hanoi Hilton. He attributed his survival, and the survival of many of his co-prisoners, to the ability to act in a compliant, even subservient, manner toward their guards and interrogators while retaining an inner courage and steadfastness. Sometimes, a façade is vital to survival.

I remember reading the memoirs of Rabbi Chaim Zeitchik, of blessed memory. He was a dedicated yeshiva teacher who found himself in the depths of Siberia during the Second World War. He was subjected to unspeakable physical conditions and to the sadistic cruelty of those who used him for forced labor. He was able to emerge from those years of horror by maintaining an outer appearance of obedience and cooperation, which masked his inner commitment to spirituality and faith. "To them, I was 'one of the boys'... an excellent and dedicated laborer... But they were unaware of my secret inner self, which even enabled me to remain a clandestine yeshiva bachur."

There is another example in this week's Torah portion of this existential split between outer appearances and inner realities. This example teaches us an even deeper lesson. Our outer appearances are not merely artificial pretenses. Quite the contrary, our outer behavior can have a beneficial impact upon our very souls. For this I refer you to a fascinating practical suggestion in the commentary of Ibn Ezra on the passage which concludes this week's parsha.

In this passage we are commanded to attach tzitzit, or ritual fringes, to our four cornered garments. This is, of course, the basis for the universal Jewish custom of wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl, during prayer services. The biblical verses make no reference to a connection between the tallit and prayer.

Ibn Ezra explains that wearing the tallit during prayer makes one more fully aware of the spiritual lessons of the prayers. He continues: "In my opinion it would be preferable to wear the tallit at other times of day, and not only during prayer. For it is precisely at those ordinary times, much more so than during prayer, that one is likely to sin."

In our survey of the Torah portion this week we described the ubiquitous conflict between appearance and reality. Often this duality results in duplicity, so that others must guard against being taken in by artificial façades.

But sometimes, as in the case of Caleb, the façade is a necessary pragmatic strategy, praiseworthy if one is principled enough to preserve his authentic inner self.

Ibn Ezra takes us even further. He teaches us that the façade can sometimes change our inner attitudes in a most beneficial manner, channeling them towards spirituality and holiness.