I get all the news I need from the weather report…
Minhag has always been foundational to our Jewish experience. One of the great benefits of valuing minhag is that our tradition gives us a common narrative, a common reference, and a common context for our lives.
As it turns out, tradition, or convention, is just as important for our secular lives. Today, as we sink ever deeper into angry discourse we find it is in no small measure because we are unable to agree on a common narrative, an agreed-upon truth upon which we can base our opinions and positions. This inability to find a common “language” has been exacerbated by a flood of “fake news” that permeates our media and discourse. Such “fake news” is a kind of propaganda that is based on deliberate misinformation communicated by traditional media and, in the most incendiary manner, by social media. Its purpose is to mislead, to confuse, to overwhelm with an ultimate purpose to undermine agencies, people or entities upon which most people had trusted.
In short, to confuse our common language and conventions.
As disturbing as “fake news” is in our lives, we need to appreciate that it is not a new phenomenon. The propaganda machine that powered Nazi Germany was, first and foremost, a powerful and effective method of creating a false narrative, or promulgating “fake news”.
The impulse to create “fake news” and our vulnerability to fall victim to it, predates even the evils of the last century.
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. It was true for the Rambam. It is true now. Ultimately, “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 twelve 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 clear – the Land would be delivered to us. Even so, fear and doubt were 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 knew that God’s promise was integral to His saving the nation from Egypt’s bondage, to bring them to the Promised Land.
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, it would become clear to them that their request was foolhardy. Sadly, he was wrong. And the ensuing disaster continues to plague us, as it has through the annals of Jewish history.
Sending the meraglim was not “fake news”. As the Baal Akeidah notes (without using the term) the “fake news” was in their “editorializing” their report. Efes ki az ha’am – “But all this is for naught, because the nation there is too strong.” Bamidbar 13:28
But had they really “overstepped”? The Shloh asks, “Hadn’t Moshe asked them to report whether ‘…is it strong or weak. few or numerous...good or bad… open or fortified...”? Don’t such questions indeed invite, demand “editorial” comment?
In most situations, when we ask for a factual, objective report, that is what we should get. But when it comes to the Land of Israel, “objective and factual” fall short. It was thus in the days of the mergalim and it is true today. Facts aren’t enough. Neither are the approaches of the nations of the world. Fake news about the Jewish state has a long history. One pernicious lie suggests that Israel, not Arab terrorists, was behind the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. In 2011, the ADL wrote, “In the ten years since the...attacks...conspiracy theories surrounding the attacks have become an entrenched propaganda industry.”
Polls note that most respondents in majority-Muslim nations believe that Israel was responsible for the attack. Fewer than a third believe that Arab terrorists conducted the assault, and the number of people inclined to believe conspiracy theories, often blaming Jews and Israel, continues to grow.
Moshe was under no illusion about the mergalim and the report they would make. That there were fortified cities in the Land, or descendants of Amalek in the south or any number of other threats and dangers would not have surprised him. He knew that these facts did not and could not change the truth of God’s promise. He believed, and he trusted that the people would believe too. He believed that the mergalim who wanted to go and see the Land for themselves would return with words of strength and encouragement. After all, they had seen with their own eyes the redemption from Egypt; they had experienced themselves the many miracles God delivered to Am Yisrael. How could they return without an affirmation of God’s promise?
Facts were facts. They espied facts and forgot God’s promise; they concluded disaster. The consequences of their failure of faith that our connection to Israel should never be evaluated by the same limited considerations as any other entity continues to plague us to our own days.
In other facets of life, data suffices. But when it comes to the Land of Israel all we need to know is that without God we could not possess so much as a sliver of the Land – not then, not now. Natural law does not govern Israel; no derech ha’teva there. God governs Israel. Period. In Devarim (11:12), the Torah states it as a given, “the Land upon which Hashem your God seeks its welfare constantly; His Eyes are upon it from the beginning of the year until the end of the year.”
Israel is unique. It is governed by God’s rules not man’s.
Moshe believed. He did not need reports, data, information, editorials and UN Security Council analyses. He did not need the mergalim or their report. All that was simply background noise.
Rabbi Frand reminds us of the prophecy in Jeremiah where God instructs the prophet to go and buy a field in the Land of Israel and record the deed. (Jeremiah 32:9-10) Buy land? When the land was being destroyed? Foolishness!
Foolishness in Boro Park, or Flatbush, or Edgeware, or France but not in Israel. No matter how bleak the situation in the short term, God says we will return, we will rebuild, we will renew. We will flourish!
So yes, Jeremiah, go and buy a field and record the deed, because He will return and bring us back to His land! Ignore the “fake news” that it can’t be done. If God promises, it will come to pass.
No place else in the world is there the promise that, “Hashem your God seeks their welfare constantly.” Eretz Yisrael is different; it is unique. Any “news report” to the contrary is “fake news.”
So why do the people fall for “fake news”? We return to Rambam’s insight. Man “…is to be drawn in his opinions and his actions after his friends and companions.” The simple fact is that the public is not well-equipped to separate quality information from false information. This is particularly true for young people. It is true now. It was true then. The people did not have the tools to discern between the words of God and Moshe and the mergalim.
How do we separate fiction from fact? Most people think they can tell the difference. But like the people hearing the report of the mergalim, they cannot. Worse, people tend to believe “information” that supports their preconceived ideas. They retreat to their news source “echo chamber”, which simply amplifies the things they already believe. As a result, not only are positions hardened but traditional media – conventional wisdom and the common narrative – becomes distrusted.
Our institutions are being eroded at their foundations. Just as in times past, “fake news” is essential to this destructive process. We will continue to be punished by the consequences of “fake news” if we continue to embrace it.