Parashat Hashavua for Shelach 2020

Parashat Hashavua for Shelach 

Rabbi Misha Clebaner
North Shore Temple Emanuel, Chatswood, NSW

Is a lie completely devoid of truth?

One term that has recently come out of the United States that has resonated deeply with information seekers, and sceptics alike, is the idea of "fake news". This principle is used by an individual or a group of people that point to a news story and then demonstrate how that representation of the event is the incorrect analysis and that the truth is actually the polar opposite.

For many around the world that have fallen prey to propaganda, from the notorious Pravda (meaning truth) in the Soviet Union to contemporary fringe online publications, the ability for a collective group of people to be able to rise up and call the bluff of misinformation could be a liberating force. To declare ‘fake news’ could be seen as a tool to finally restore power to the people away from the “power brokers” that appear to control the narrative.

Yet more often than not declaring ‘fake news’ is not used for the sake of halting misinformation in news media with the hope of illuminating the truth, instead this resurrected concept of an untrustworthy press is in and of itself the medium of disseminating propaganda.

There are indeed unintentional errors and deliberately misleading statements made in news media and there is a need for consistent oversight (which is why many major publications have a public editor or an ombudsman). While the existence of inaccuracies in news media could point to the validity and need for an idea such as ‘fake news’, in reality, the roots of casting suspicion on members of the press is much more nefarious.

The history of propaganda disguised as truth-seekers exposing the propaganda of others can be best illustrated by the term “Lügenpresse” (meaning the lying press in German). One example of the many uses of this term across German history is the Nazi’s labelling of independent Jewish publications and periodicals as the ‘lying press’.

In this week’s Torah portion of Shelach the 12 Spies (10 naysayers led by the visionary Joshua and Caleb) return to Moses after scouting the Land of Israel by stating: “We came unto the land that you sent us, and surely it flowed with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it.” In the next sentence, the spies go on to say: “However the people that dwell in the land are fierce, and the cities are fortified, and very great.” 

In Talmud Sota 35a (translation by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz) says: “Why did the spies praise the land and then slander it? Rabbi Yoḥanan says in the name of Rabbi Meir: any slander that does not begin with a truthful statement ultimately does not stand, i.e., it is not accepted by others.”

It is a complicated time to know what is deceit and what is truth. Yet, it has always been this way, stretching back 3000 years to the time of Moses and the scouts.

What is fake news or fake scouting reports - presenting some truth mixed in with deceit. We must be careful to never judge a Land or a person too quickly. Instead, we must be resolute like Moses, Joshua and Caleb and continue to investigate and continue to have hope for change - despite the naysayers and slanderers. 

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