Even the casual observer of human behavior knows that people are not always what they seem to be.
Talmudic sage Rabban Gamaliel was so convinced of this that no one would be admitted to his academy unless “his inside was like his outside,” unless he could prove he was as pious and as learned as he appeared to be. (Lucky for those whose “insides” did not match their “outsides” this policy was disputed and eventually overturned.)
Nevertheless, Rabban Gamaliel’s wariness remained sound according to at least one later sage, Rabbi Meir, who offered, “Do not look at the container but at what it contains, for a new flask may contain old wine, and an old flask may not contain anything, even new wine.” (Pirkei Avot 4:27)
Rabbi Meir went even further, recognizing that negative appearances might conceal positive characteristics beneath the surface.
Commentators remind us that Rabbi Meir continued to learn Torah from Elisha Ben Avuya, even after the latter behaved in a most sacrilegious manner. Rabbi Meir “cast away the rind and ate the fruit,” looking beyond the container and discerning the legitimate teachings within.
In this week’s portion, we encounter two startling examples of the discrepancy between external appearances and internal realities. The first is found in Caleb. When 10 of the 12 spies returning from their mission to the Promised Land delivered a discouraging report, Caleb and Joshua were the only two who insisted that “the land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land…, land that flows with milk and honey…. (Numbers 14:7-8).”
When the people swallowed the spies’ report, ignoring the opinion of Caleb and Joshua, the Almighty responded: “None of the men who have seen my presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt…shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers…. But my servant Caleb, because he was imbued with a different spirit…will I bring into the land….”
What does “he was imbued with a different spirit” mean? Rashi explains: “He had two ‘spirits,’ one in his mouth and one in his heart. To the spies he said, ‘I am with you in your scheme.’ But in his heart he intended to speak the truth. He was thus able to silence them, because they were convinced he was on their side.”
Another example in this week’s portion teaches that outer behavior can even have a beneficial impact upon our souls, as illustrated by a suggestion in Ibn Ezra’s commentary on the parsha’s concluding passage, which includes the commandment to attach tzitzit, ritual fringes, to four-cornered garments (the basis for the custom of wearing a tallit during prayer). The verses make no connection between the tallit and prayer.
Ibn Ezra says, “In my opinion it would be preferable to wear the tallit at other times of day, and not only during prayer. For it is precisely at those ordinary times…that one is likely to sin.”
In the conflict between appearance and reality, Ibn Ezra goes so far as to teach that the facade can sometimes change our inner attitudes, channeling them toward spirituality and holiness.