As a beginning cantor, age 17, my first High Holiday job was in a small town community where the little synagogue had limited facilities. In its lobby was just one restroom, and that restroom had this sign on the door:




Local residents had some fun with that sign, because you could read it more than one way. Put a comma after “women” and it obviously means that this is the Ladies’ Room and there is also a Men’s Room downstairs. But put the comma after “downstairs” and it means that this is the Men’s Room and the women have to go downstairs. Or, with no comma at all, it would read simply “Women downstairs for men” — in which case the sign is in the wrong building.

How do we read the various signs in our lives? One monumental misreading occurs in this week’s Torah reading, which concerns the 12 spies that Moses sent to scout the land of Canaan.

The Jewish people were camped in the desert, not a year and a quarter out of Egypt. They had received the Torah at Mount Sinai, they had recovered from the sin of the Golden Calf, they had dedicated the Tabernacle — the portable shrine that was the first Jewish house of worship — and they were now close enough to plan on entering the Promised Land. No, they could not traverse the Sinai Peninsula in 100 hours like their modern mechanized descendants, but 14 months with some 3 million people on foot is not a bad record. In last week’s reading, we heard how Moses led the people in the second Passover holiday, the one-year anniversary of their freedom. Now he must prepare to enter Canaan.

Each of the spies was a prince of his tribe, a prominent honorable man. Certainly their report should be valuable. They entered the country from the south, explored the various hills and valleys, checked out the cities and the farmland. We read that this was grape ripening season — early summer — and they found such ample crops that they could bring back a grape cluster so heavy that it had to be carried on a stick by two men. With such produce, we can assume that the ancient tribes of Canaan had more advanced agricultural skills than the medieval tribes who turned much of that land into a desert.

After 40 days the spies returned to camp with that cluster, but also with a conflicted report. Ten of them admitted that this was truly a “land of milk and honey” as their parents had told them. But what really impressed them was the power of the inhabitants. Fortified cities, warlike tribes like Amalek, even giants they saw! We cannot defeat them. That’s how they read the signs.

Only two spies, Caleb and Joshua, disagreed. They saw a timorous public. “They are our bread! Their shadows left them!” Like other rich and corrupt establishments threatened with a “barbarian invasion,” the Canaanites were scared. Let’s go, said Caleb, we should go up and take the land; we can do it! If G-d gave us the strength to come this far, let’s go on.

Clearly, most of the spies were looking at walls and towers. The minority looked into the eyes of the people. Who read the signs right?

The answer to that question would have to wait another 38 years, because the people accepted the majority report, rioted against Moses and Aaron, and even considered going back to Egypt. Stuck in the desert.

After 40 days, the spies changed their generation’s history. After 40 years, Caleb finally changed his people’s destiny. The Haftorah, in Chapter 2 of the Book of Joshua, recounts the second spy story, when Joshua, now inheriting Moses’ leadership, sends just two spies. Their trip is much shorter and their report is totally different. They spend the night in Jericho in the house of a lady of the night named Rahab, who hides them under cut grain stalks on her roof to protect them from the local gendarmes, and they learn the local conditions from her. As a result, Joshua is able to lead the people across the Jordan, surround Jericho and watch its walls fall down. According to the Midrash, one of those two spies was a young fellow of 18, and the other was an octogenarian named — Caleb, the champion dissenter from the original 12 spies.

He read the signs. We should do no less. We came this far. Don’t give up!

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