Fatal Flaws

Students of drama are well acquainted withAristotle’s view about the “fatal flaw.” Protagonists of tragedy, nomatter how exalted, are brought down by a tragic flaw from within:bad judgment or bad character.

Centuries before Aristotle developed his theory,the Torah illustrated it, as we can clearly see in the sad story ofthe 10 scouts so poignantly told in this week’s Torah portion.

Twelve men were sent to scout out the land ofCanaan as preparation for an invasion by Israel’s 12 tribes. Two,Joshua and Caleb, believed that the Israelites would be successful.Ten scouts, however, came back with a demoralizing report.

When studying the Torah’s account of how these 10arrived at their negative report, we must wonder about both theircharacter and their judgment.

In describing the scouts’ background, the Torahstates, “All those men were heads of the Children of Israel.” Rashi,the classical commentator, writes, “Whenever the term ‘men’ is usedin Scripture, it denotes worthiness, and at that time, they wereworthy men.”

Yet we must wonder if these men were truly worthy:What blinded them to reality and caused them to lead the entirenation astray?

Perhaps our answer lies in analyzing theingredients that motivated them to act in such a self-destructivefashion. The Zohar suggests that each possessed a character flaw.Each was concerned about his own personal honor and influence. Allworried that once the nation divided into separate tribes living indifferent locations, without a central authority, their leadershiprole would be eroded. Thus false pride caused them to panic to savetheir jobs.

Pride alone, however, cannot account for thescouts’ actions; the Torah reports that all 10 were frightened byseeing the giants in Hebron. When they encountered the giants Ahiman,Sheshai and Talmai, they felt, in comparison, like “grasshoppers.”Was it the giants’ physical strength that scared the scouts? Or,since they knew that God, the Omnipotent, could defeat the greatestof men, was another factor involved?

The Talmud suggests that each giant was anoutstanding personage: Ahiman, a great political leader; Sheshai, amilitary expert; and Talmai, a minister of finance. The scouts werefrightened not by physical power but by a superior, well-organizedcivilization. They believed that the Jewish people would lose itsspiritual identity and integrity when encountering such asociety.

In other words, a foolish judgment about Torah, alack of confidence in Judaism proved to be their fatal flaw. If theTorah cannot successfully confront modernity, what eternity does itpossess? The scouts assumed that Torah could not withstand thechallenge of the real world, and, for this misjudgment, they werepunished.

Whether we believe that a flaw in their character,their pride and love of honor caused their fall, or we consider theirpoor judgment, their terrible philosophical miscalculation asresponsible for their destruction, their tragedy contains a lessonfor all generations. Too often, great men destroy themselves becauseof an overwhelming drive for Kavod, while others falter from narrow,clouded vision and an inability to see Torah as a living document.Whenever a fatal flaw is present, we should learn from such mistakesto avoid the inevitable tragedy.

Rabbi Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel ofCentury City