Parashat Shelach Lecha — Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Shelach Lecha, tells of one of the greatest catastrophes to befall the People of Israel during its sojourn in the wilderness. Commonly referred to as the “sin of the spies,” this incident becomes the very reason it would take the people 40 years to enter the Promised Land. During those 40 years, the entire generation of Israelites that left Egypt, save two men — Joshua and Caleb — would perish. Only the generations born in the wilderness, those who never experienced slavery in Egypt, would merit possessing the land.
In chapter 13 of the Book of Bemidbar (Numbers) God instructs Moses to “Send men to scout the land of Canaan” (13:2). In fulfilling God’s bidding, Moses says to the scouts (or spies), of which there was one from each tribe: “‘Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land'” (13:17-20).
What Moses asks for is “just the facts.” However, what the scribes bring back is a report with too much commentary. The scouts effectively undermine the people’s faith in God and once again ready them to return to Egypt: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size… and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (13:32-33).
Incensed at the scouts and those who joined them in fearing that Israel would never be able to possess the land that God had promised their ancestors, God declares that the generations of Israelites that left Egypt would be doomed to wander for 40 years, one year for each day the scouts were on their mission. This would be enough time to ensure that younger, more faithful Israelites would eventually take over the leadership of the tribes and then conquer the land of Canaan. The People needed optimistic leaders who wouldn’t easily be swayed to abandon their divine mission only to bear the shackles of slavery in Egypt once again.
For a brilliant interpretation of why the generation of the scouts was punished by God as it was, I urge you to read the article by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks at http://www.aishdas.org/ta/5772/shlach.pdf. Rabbi Sacks was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth of England from 1991 to 2013 and is one of the most astute readers and teachers of Torah in the world today. In answering his own question — “Why did the spies err so egregiously?” — Rabbi Sacks shares a Hassidic train of thought that the spies preferred the wilderness life over the life that would come with building a nation in the Land of Israel (http://www.aishdas.org/ta/5772/shlach.pdf). In the wilderness, the people felt close to God and they could focus on serving God free of responsibilities like plowing and harvesting, self-defense, maintaining a welfare system, etc. In reality, though, Rabbi Sacks writes, “The Jewish task is not to fear the real world but to enter and transform it. That is what the spies did not understand” (ibid.).
As we go through life, we often face obstacles that initially feel insurmountable, and it is tempting to simply back away from the obstacles and abandon whatever it was we were hoping to achieve. Had the spies had their way, the People of Israel would have returned back to Egypt, leaving Canaan for another nation to conquer. But that was not God’s plan. So eventually a generation arose with the resolve to see God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to fulfillment. We must show similar resolve in our lives to do the hard, sometimes frightening work required to enjoy a life of meaning and to make the world a better place for all humanity. It is our task to make God’s love manifest for all God’s creatures; this can only happen when we overcome isolation and avoidance to engage the “real world.”