As we know all too well these days, the mentality of the mob becomes its own inexorable force. Whether dealing with LGBT, Covid, Climate Change or any number of related Woke topics, it is the Received Wisdom that matters, not whether or not it is logical or sensible. Any and all who differ from the orthodox line are threatened, belittled, cancelled, and sometimes even killed.
But we would do well to appreciate that this is not a new phenomenon. Mob Rule is as old as time, older even than villagers with pitchforks and torches, hellbent on killing the Outsider. The pattern is consistent: arbitrarily define an orthodoxy, then attack all those who do not fully subscribe to it. In this world, there are no universally-held and blindly-applied legal principles, no sacrosanct institutions. Instead, the seemingly-mindless mob is like a school of fish, jerking its collective this way and that with no clear leader, but with one absolute conclusion: everyone must do what everyone else is doing.
In the Torah, the very same story plays out when the spies come back from Canaan. Foreshadowing Covid and Climate Change hysteria, the thought leaders start by sowing fear:
But the other men … said, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” Thus, they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are of great size … and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”
And the people, just like in our generation, freak out. The conditions are set to create a mob, unified by fear:
The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. “If only we had died in the land of Egypt,” the whole community shouted at them, or “If only we might die in this wilderness!” “Why is G-d taking us to that land to fall by the sword?” “Our wives and children will be carried off!” “It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!”
Two men stand up to the mob, proclaiming that there can be a great future – as long as the people are brave. But frightened people do not want to hear about bravery. Indeed, instead of merely ignoring the cooler heads, the mob prepares to kill them, stab the old leaders (who are now the new outsiders) with the proverbial pitchforks. Except that they use a different weapon:
The whole community threatened to pelt them with stones.
Stones in the Torah are deeply symbolic. Killing someone by stoning only happens in cases of a profound rift in what should be holy relationships: practicing witchcraft, worshipping Molech, incurable rebellion against parents, violating the Sabbath, and cursing G-d. Each and every one of these events is triggered by an inability to keep our primary priority in mind: the fidelity of our relationships.
The first time stones are used in the Torah was for Jacob’s dream – the first reciprocal connection between man and G-d. The stone is the central prop to a key event: the first time G-d and Man swear fealty to one another, exchanging promises and bonding the descendants of Jacob’s people to G-d evermore.
Stones are thus used as a penalty to remind everyone that relationships, going back to the first use of stones in the Torah, are of primary importance. Preserving key relationships can be even more important than life itself.
What does this have to do with the mob rule? I think the mob was going to throw stones at Caleb and Joshua and Moses not because they were trying to restore the relationship with G-d but because the mob were declaring that their former leaders were themselves being blasphemous by not acknowledging the innate power and correctness of the decision of the mob. In other words, the mob was doing precisely what our modern mobs have done: claim that any unbelievers are to be destroyed for lacking faith in whatever the mob happens to think on any given day.
Part of the cause of the mob’s unrest was actually provided by Caleb and Joshua. When you first read the text, it looks like reassurance:
If He desires us, G-d will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us.
The problem is that the word used for “desires” (chafetz) is only found in four other verses in the Torah. In each case, it means to desire a lifelong marital relationship. So the leaders are telling the people that if G-d desires that relationship, they will be OK.
But if we look at those verses, we see something that must have been even more unsettling. Not one of the verses refers to a happy relationship! On the contrary, not one of them has anything like a
“happily ever after” ending. Here they are:
And the youth [Shechem] lost no time in doing the thing, for he desired Jacob’s daughter [Dinah].
[Shechem ends up dead, and there was no marriage]
Then, should you no longer desire her, you must release her outright.
[This is the beautiful captive, and it speaks of the negative case: where desire is lost]
And then there are two verses about levirate marriage:
But if the man does not desire to take his brother’s widow [to wife] … If he insists, saying, “I do not desire to take her,”
Not one of these verses is suggesting that relying on the desire for a long-term relationship is a winning formula. Which means that instead of placating the mob, the leaders end up inciting them to greater rage!
Caleb tells the mob that their fear is baseless:
Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey: their protection has departed from them, but G-d is with us. Have no fear of them!”
But as we have seen in our own times, pointing out that the mob is driven by senseless fear is not a winning argument. It just makes them less logical and more angy. Indeed, the leaders would have been killed, if it were not for a deus ex machina just before the first stones were thrown.
Where the Torah does not offer us an answer is the question we have today: without direct divine intervention, how do we defang the mob? How do we make people come to their senses?
What is clear to me is that G-d has no sense of humor for those who fall under the spell of the mob. In the case of the spies, the people were being offered a long-term relationship with Him – and the mob turned G-d down.
This would certainly help explain why the punishment they endure is that they all must die in the wilderness: if you do not jump at the chance for a deeper relationship with G-d, then you are not worthy of His love!
[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work!]