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Spies Like Us

Torah Talk on Shelach Lecha 5779

This week we chant the dramatic portion of Shelach Lecha in the book of Numbers, the story of the meraglim, the spies. The Israelites have journeyed to the borders of the Holy Land, just a year and a half after leaving Egyptian exile. Under God’s direction, Moses sends 12 spies, one from each tribe, princes of the people—wealthy men of standing—into the land of Canaan to scout out the land and see if it can be captured.

The spies take a month to tour the whole land and they report back to Moses that Canaan is very good, flowing with milk and honey. They even bring back a huge cluster of grapes, so large it needs to be carried by two men on a pole, now the enduring symbol of Israel’s tourism ministry. Everything’s going to be great!

Only it’s not. Ten of the twelve spies then proceed to report that the people of the land are huge—“we felt like grasshoppers next to them”, they say—and numerous, the cities fortified and unassailable. The Israelites have no chance to capture Canaan, in spite of having God’s support. It’s hopeless. Two spies, Caleb and Joshua, deliver a minority report, saying that with God’s help the land can be taken. But the people are terrified. Again, they ask Moses and Aaron, “Why did you take us from slavery only to kill us here at the hands of our enemies?”

And so, at this point God decides: this generation of former slaves will never be able to become a free people in its own land. The psychological shackles of slavery are too strong to overthrow in one generation. They must remain in the Sinai Wilderness until the adults all die off and a new generation arises that has not known slavery and its defeatist mentality.

Stung by the verdict, the people turn again, and attempt a leaderless invasion of the land without God’s support. It fails dismally, and the people of Israel are now condemned to wander the wilderness for 38 more years—a total of 40 since they left Egyptian slavery—until a new, young generation can emerge to take the reigns and enter the land with a fresh perspective from having been born into freedom.

It’s a great lesson in the process that is required to cleanse the trauma of failure from the minds of a community. Often, it’s not one single act or great revolution that truly remakes a people or a country or an organization. It’s the generational turn that comes from learning that things can be done differently and better, and that freedom is a birthright to be defended.

In our own lives we Jews today often share our ancestors’ tendency to believe that failure is permanent and success temporary. Shelach Lecha shows the danger of such belief, and the importance of having faith in God, and in our own ability to change for the better. Ultimately, the Israelites do enter the land of their eternal inheritance, for good.

We, too, have the capacity to create new, valuable, even wonderful things, both individually and, most importantly, collectively. We, too, can enter new lands, create new organizations and communities. What’s required is faith in the support of God, and the flexibility to learn, grow and embrace change for the better.

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