I believe the well-known story of the spies in this week’s Torah reading can provide us with a better understanding of where that line should be drawn. But first we need to gain a better grasp of the underlying story line:
The Jewish people sent the spies because they were looking for an excuse: They didn’t want to enter the Land of Israel because they knew that the nation would be held to a very high moral standard there, they were justifiably concerned that they would be incapable of meeting that standard, and they feared the consequences. God, of course, knew all of this from the get-go, but He also knew that the land could not be forced upon the nation. They had to want it – so he allowed them to send the spies and ultimately choose for themselves.
When the twelve spies return, they admit that the land is good, but ten of them question their ability to conquer it, which, in their eyes, makes it a death trap and a very bad thing. So, they attack the land, then they attack Moshe and Aaron for leading them there, and finally, they attack God Himself. What’s fascinating is that none of this prompts Godly intervention. In fact, it’s only when the remaining two spies, Joshua and Caleb, testify that the land is both good and attainable - and the people, in response, attempt to stone them to death - that God steps in and threatens to eradicate the nation.
Why didn’t God step in when they slandered the land, or when they impugned his chosen servants, or when they unjustly accused God Himself of leading them to the desert in order to kill them?
The classic commentator known as the Ohr HaChaim asks another question that can perhaps shed light on our question as well: Why didn’t the people try to kill Caleb earlier, when he silenced them and argued that they could and should conquer the land? His answer: Because Caleb was only one person, and the testimony of one person is inadmissible in most cases of Jewish law. When Joshua joins him however, there are now two witnesses, and in Jewish law, two witnesses carry the same weight as two hundred. Together, they had the power to challenge the narrative of the other ten spies, which made them a threat that needed to be eradicated.
It was no doubt problematic that the people didn’t want to enter the land, and it was even worse that they impugned Moshe, Aaron and God in the process. Nevertheless, God only intervened when they attacked Joshua and Caleb because it was an attempt to silence dissent. Holding an erroneous viewpoint can certainly be problematic, but if disagreements are tolerated, there’s a chance for people to see the error of their ways. If the people had succeeded in getting Joshua and Caleb out the way, they would no longer have had that chance. They would have been doomed to live in an echo chamber of their own making, having destroyed their only real opportunity for salvation. God drew the line here because it was the point of no return.
What we often witness today online and in protest rallies on college campuses and in our cities - the shouting, finger-pointing and demonizing, regardless of which side of the aisle it emanates from - is really nothing more than an attempt to quash all opposing viewpoints, fueled by a combination of self-righteous indignation and an inability to accept that things don’t always go our way. These are not just ugly traits; they are dangerous, because they close off the path of learning and self-correction and doom us to become the victims of our own over-confidence and narrow-mindedness.
This is true in the political sphere, and it’s equally true in the personal sphere as well. Whenever our own sense of self-righteousness causes us to stop listening, or even worse, to shut down the other, we diminish our own ability to learn and correct our mistakes. At this point, we leave God little choice: Either He stands back and watches us self-destruct, or he draws the line to get our attention in what is really an act of mercy; so that maybe, just maybe, we will admit our own fallibility and recognize the error of our ways.