The aphorism is a tried and tested literary and language device. The idea is you create a pithy phrase, generally short and easily remembered, and you use it to convey some central truth. The most successful aphorisms are very commonly known – so much so that many people know them by heart, and probably use them on a regular basis. Here are just a few well known examples:
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! – in other words, when something is working well, don’t mess around with it! Winston Churchill was a great aphorist, and there are countless aphorisms attributed to him, including ‘everyone has his day, but some days last longer than others.’ Yogi Berra was a great modern creator of aphorisms, including ‘it gets late early out here,’ and probably his most famous statement of all, ‘it ain’t over until its – over!’ And there are many aphorisms we use that are unattributed, probably the most popular of them today being ‘it is what it is.’
This morning I would like to think with you about two aphorisms, both of them very familiar, that seem to me to connect into this morning’s Torah portion, and also perhaps to the so called ‘Brexit’ vote that just took place in Great Britain a little more than a week ago. I’ll give you the first half of the statement, lets see if you can give me the second half: the grass is always greener…on the other side of the fence. And the second statement: Be careful…what you wish for.
It might be worthwhile for a moment or two thinking about how we commonly understand these statements. Lets begin with the grass is always greener. If you’ve ever been responsible for mowing and maintaining a lawn, you have experienced this sensation many times. Boy your neighbor’s lawn, over there on the other side of the fence, looks good! It is so green, there are no weeds, its just been cut while yours is long and has dry patches and too many dandelions. But of course the truth is your neighbor’s lawn also has its own issues. It might look so good because your neighbor has put hours of work into it, or because she has it professionally mowed, or if you went over and stood in her lawn and looked around, you might realize it actually doesn’t look that great up close. But your perception of it is that it is green – in other words, it is certainly better than your lawn!
And then the second statement, be careful what you wish for. You may be familiar with the great Sondheim musical Into the Woods. It weaves together the threads of multiple fairy tales, to include Cinderella, Jack and the Bean Stalk, and Rapunzel. Each of the major characters wishes for something they don’t have – the baker and his wife for a child, the witch for youth, Cinderella for a prince, Jack and his mother for wealth. At the end of the first act each wish has been fulfilled and everything seems to have ended “happily ever after.”
But the musical doesn’t end there. There is a second act, and in that act everything begins to unravel, for each of the characters, and in each case the cause of the character’s problems is the very thing they wished for and found. Be careful what you wish for. How often is it that we believe if we could only have – whatever it might be – then our lives would be perfect, and we would come to a sense of completion. But the truth is, so often in life, when you find that thing you’ve been searching for, it comes with its own set of problems, not the least of which, by the way, is that once you get that thing it doesn’t give you the satisfaction you thought it would.
In this morning’s Torah portion we find the famous story of the spies – the m’raglim. A group of 12, they are sent into the land by Moses to spy it out, so the Israelites will know what they’ll find there. You’ll remember the story – the spies go in, and they see a series of daunting challenges – the people seem to be strong and difficult to defeat, the cities are fortified, even the geography seems intimidating. When they return to Moses and the people they give a terrible report that scares the Israelites to the point where they refuse to go up into the land that God has promised them. In the Torah the spies are condemned as sinners, the people panic, and ultimately God decides that not a single one of those Israelites will ever enter the Promised Land.
Lets first think of the grass is always greener. The spies had two things in their minds that they were comparing – what was before them – the new land – and what was behind them, Egypt. And when they held those two things up and examined them, despite the fact that they had been slaves in Egypt, despite the taste of the bitterness of that experience that was still in their mouths, when they looked back they saw Egypt as the better of the two scenarios. They saw what they were about to possess on one side of the fence – a land with admittedly significant challenges, but also a land flowing with milk and honey – and they saw what was on the other side of that fence – Egypt and slavery. And in their eyes, standing with one foot in the Promised Land, just about to enter, looking back, the grass looked greener in Egypt.
Which in a sense led the people directly into aphorism number 2, be careful what you wish for. It is an odd thing to think about, but the truth is the spies got exactly what they wanted. They believed the people didn’t stand a chance of successfully entering the land and defeating its inhabitants – לא נוכל לעלות אל העם כי חזק הוא ממנו – we cannot attack that people, it is stronger than we are! And the Israelites followed their advice, believing they had no chance. It was exactly the outcome the spies were hoping for.
But be careful what you wish for. The people panicked. God becomes so angry with them that God makes the decision none of them will enter the new land. The wandering in the wilderness will continue until the entire generation has died off. So in the end, by achieving their short term goal, the spies – and by extension the people – lost out on the greatest possible blessing the could have found – living as free people in their own land.
Maybe it is not so different for all of those folks in England who voted to leave the European Union. They were poised between a past that was familiar, England unattached to the EU, and a future with a growing sense of integration and cooperation, that to them felt unfamiliar and scary and threatening. And in their eyes the grass looked greener in the past than it did on the path to the future they saw ahead of them.
Well they got what they wanted. I guess the question at this point is will it be a case of be careful what you wish for. In an increasingly global economy will England figure out a way to mostly go it alone, or will it struggle and watch the rest of the world move forward as it is left behind? And when they get to wherever they are going, arriving there alone, what will the grass look like? My guess is it won’t look quite as green as what is on the other side of the fence.