Sticks and Carrots in the Wilderness

Parashat Sh’lach 5781 / פרשת שְׁלַח־לְךָ
Torah Portion: Numbers 13:1-15:41

Sometimes in life we need a stick to keep us in line and moving forward. At other times, a carrot will do just fine, if not better. There are times when it is appropriate to remind people of the negative consequences of their behavior and occasionally to rebuke people for their misdeeds, but for people to change, they also need incentive and positive reinforcement.

We’ve just celebrated three b’nai mitzvah in our community. All three of the children who became b’nai mitzvah did honor to themselves, their families, the community, Torah and God. As with most b’nai mitzvah, these three made minor mistakes here and there — a slight mispronunciation of Hebrew, a wrong note when chanting Torah, leaving a mask on when it should have been taken off or taking a mask off when it should have been left on — but I doubt very much that most people in attendance noticed. If they did, I doubt they will remember those mistakes when they recall the celebrations a few years hence. All they will remember is how well the children did. And our children did well.

I’ve never heard of a child failing his or her bar or bat mitzvah. Why is that? On one level, you could say it’s impossible to fail because becoming a bar or bat mitzvah requires nothing more than coming of age, turning 13 for boys, 12 or 13 for girls. Even when tragedy strikes and a young person’s life is cut short before coming of age, we may remember those lives years later and hold a symbolic bar or bat mitzvah in their memory.

On a practical level, though, the children don’t fail because those of us who help prepare them have in our educational toolboxes both sticks and carrots. We correct their mistakes. We chide them when they don’t practice. But we also praise them when they show improvement. I suspect the greatest stick is the one most children want to avoid — utter humiliation as they stand before their friends and families. And the greatest carrot is the prospect of nailing their prayers and Torah readings and speeches and enjoying that feeling of success. If these were not “Covid times,” I would add that the bar or bat mitzvah party is the ultimate incentive for children to stick with their preparations until the end. Even in Covid times, though, many of the children look forward to a post-Covid party.

Just as b’nai mitzvah need sticks and carrots to shine on their big days, in getting through the pandemic that has plagued the world for the last year and a half, all of us have needed sticks and carrots. For some people, the fear of catching and transmitting Covid has hung over them as they’ve masked up, washed up, and shut up. For those same people, the prospect of preserving life and one day resuming life as usual has been a positive incentive. These same dynamics are at work as we talk about becoming vaccinated. There is a consequence that individuals and communities may pay if they’re not protected against Covid and its variants, but the idea of being safe from the virus and having all our children enjoying a normal school day is, for many, the most powerful motivator.

I mention sticks and carrots because in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Sh’lach, God presents Israel with sticks and carrots in order to secure their fidelity to the Covenant as they wander through the wilderness. We find in this Torah portion a pivotal moment in the post-exodus experience of our ancestors. This is where twelve scouts, representing twelve tribes, return from a reconnaissance mission in Canaan and report their findings to Moses, Aaron and the whole community of Israel. It is noteworthy that in this telling of the story — as opposed to the telling later in Deuteronomy — it is God who tells Moses to send the scouts to check out the land. Perhaps God here is conceding that the people need to see the land for themselves as their faith in God continues to develop amidst the hardship of their wanderings.

Rather than exude confidence that they could conquer the people who lived there — veritable giants who made the scouts feel like grasshoppers in their own eyes — rather than relish the thought of being a free people in this lush, fertile land that produces clusters of grapes so heavy that they require two men to carry them, ten of the twelve spies proclaim that the land “devours its settlers” and they argue that this is yet another example of God wrenching them from their relatively comfortable lives as slaves in Egypt only to suffer and die in unfamiliar territory. Ten of the spies hold up a stick of fear. For them, the only carrot is to be found in returning to Egypt.

Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, hold out a grand carrot, one of hope and optimism, and a smaller stick, a reminder that spurning God would bring certain disaster: “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it… If the Lord is pleased with us, God will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against the Lord.” (Num. 13:30,14:8-9). 

For instilling confidence and offering a vision of ultimate redemption, Joshua and Caleb are rewarded by God with the opportunity to accompany Israel into the land. The reading from the Book of Joshua that accompanies this Torah portion, in fact, recounts Joshua’s preparations for overtaking the region of Jericho once in the land.

Meanwhile, the other ten scouts die of a plague and the entire generation of Israelites who left Egypt are doomed to wander for 40 years in the wilderness, with only the children born after the exodus being able to enter the land for which they are headed. Watching the older generation die during those 40 years, in turn, becomes an effective stick that helps the younger generation strive to be faithful to God’s commandments.

But as we read about the spies, something odd happens in the Torah immediately after this story. We read: “Adonai spoke to Moses, saying… When you enter the land that I am giving you to settle in, (here’s how you shall) present a gift to Adonai from the herd or from the flock…” (Num. 15:1-3) And shortly thereafter, we read about the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit on the corners of our garments to remember the mitzvot (Num.15:32-41).

Why the sudden shift from the drama of the spies to the talk about sacrifices and fringes on our garments? Here I am struck by the commentary in the Jewish Publication Society’s Eytz Hayim Torah and Commentary (p. 850):

The sages find a connection between the story of the scouts and the commandments to bring offerings and to wear tzitzit. Ibn Ezra (a medieval Spanish commentator) imagines the Israelites cast into despair. God has written them off, and the dream of settlement in the Promised Land now seems impossible. To revive their spirits, God commands Moses to tell them “When you enter the land that I am giving you.” These words affirm that God still communicates with the people, that God has not written them off permanently. They affirm further that the promise of the Land is still in force, although it will be their children who will enter it and put these laws into practice.

In other words, the parashah ends not with the threat of annihilation, a massive stick, but with a message of promise, a grand carrot. God is with you, despite your mistakes. Your descendants will thrive in the land. This whole journey is not for nothing, and God didn’t bring you out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness. 

This is the lesson we should carry with us as we face all of life’s challenges, whether it be becoming a bar or bat mitzvah or surviving a pandemic or anything else. Yes, there are real, if not always dire consequences for shirking our responsibilities. Yes, there is sometimes something to fear — humiliation, sickness, even death. But, the reward for maintaining discipline and for persevering even at the most difficult of times is great. In overcoming all the obstacles before us, we ultimately get to bask in the glory of our success and shine. (How can we be “a light unto the nations” if we don’t shine?)

We all have our own challenges. Each challenge comes with its own sticks and carrots. May we not cower in fear of the sticks, but instead, heed the call made famous in the fight for civil rights: “keep your eyes on the prize.” With faith, hope, optimism and great effort, we will reach that prize.

Shabbat Shalom!