When the scouts went to the Promised Land

Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Shelach, Numbers 13:1 — 15:41

This week’s parsha marks the halfway point in the yearly reading cycle. In it, Moses is ordered to send out (sh’lach) 12 scouts (some call them spies), one from each tribe, to examine the Promised Land.

They go out and search the land and then return to report their findings. They confirm that the land is indeed bounteous. But 10 of the 12 give fearful reports of the dangers posed by the inhabitants.

“We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them,” the 10 say (Numbers 13:33). Only Joshua and Caleb state that with faith in God, the people will take ownership of the land promised to them.

The people are frightened, and their murmuring turns into something close to panic. God tells Moses that He will destroy the people, but Moses intercedes. God’s punishment is severe, however. The people are sentenced to spend 40 years in the wilderness.

The 10 scouts demonstrate a basic human emotion: fear. They have only recently been released from slavery, and they lack confidence. They also display a lack of faith in themselves. And they reveal a lack of faith in God. These three human emotions sentence them to wander in the wilderness until where the generation of the scouts (and their slave mentality) die out, leaving the generation raised in freedom to enter the land.

The sages suggest that the 10 scouts were guilty of yet another error. While Caleb and Joshua expressed confidence in the ability of God to see them through the difficulties of conquering the land, the scouts spread their message of fear, self-denigration, and a lack of trust in God to the people.

Today, the Jewish people in Israel and around the world face a rising tide of hatred and opposition, filled with slander and violence. This is a new kind, or perhaps a re-emergence, of anti-Semitism unseen for many decades.

The Jewish people of this century have a choice: We can choose to be like Joshua and Caleb, and reject fear, have faith in ourselves and faith in God to secure a bright future for us and for Israel. Or, we can act like the 10 scouts, be fearful and speak doom and gloom, and cast doubt on ourselves and on the legitimacy of the Jewish people’s right to a state of our own. Joshua and Caleb demonstrated faith, patience, and a refusal to be downcast by the size of the opposition. Can we do less today?

Questions for discussion:

The scouts state that they looked like grasshoppers to themselves, and therefore would so appear to their foes. How we see ourselves sometimes is indeed how others see us. If we fail to support Israel publicly, will others question whether we American Jews continue to support Israel?

Is a sense of faith in oneself a prerequisite to a faith in God? Is the reverse true?

Gary D. Simms is a staff member of Shoresh Hebrew High School, and a former executive director of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox congregations in the Washington area.

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