In this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’cha, Moses chose leaders from each tribe to form a company of scouts that would journey into the land that the Israelites had been promised so long ago. These men were given specific aspects of the land to investigate and were sent off with the hopes and the concerns of their people. They scouted the land for 40 days and came back to the camp carrying stores of huge fruit as well as other evidence of the the shocking bounty of the new land. Upon their return, they rushed to Moses and delivered what could charitably be considered a “mixed report” of the Promised Land:
“We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.” (Numbers 13:27-29)
Caleb, a tribal leader who had been with the scouts, interrupted his fellows and said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” (Numbers 13:30)
But the Torah goes on to say that the other scouts rejected Caleb’s optimism and continued talking about their fears, saying, “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; we saw the Nephilim there… and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:32-33)
The consequences of the scouts’ insecurities are immediately and profoundly felt by all of the Israelites. The Torah tells us that upon hearing the scouts’ concerns, “The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt,’ the whole community shouted at them, ‘or if only we might die in this wilderness! Why is the LORD taking us to that land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!’ And they said to one another, ‘Let us head back for Egypt.” (Numbers 14:1-4)
This week, as I read this parashah, I was struck by the relevance of the story’s outline.
Here is an overview of the story- distilled into bullet points:
Leaders of the people who had been charged with devising a suitable path forward were overcome by dread and fear upon learning that the power they had expected to wield in this new land would not be as complete as they had hoped.
Faced with this potential reality, they were very afraid, and when they looked around themselves, their fear made them see only enemies.
When these leaders spoke to their people, they acknowledged the beauty of the promised future, but they told them that the way forward was too dangerous, too terrifying to even consider.
After seeing their leaders- those people who had been charged with their care- reject any idea of moving forward, the people were overcome with their own fears and disappointments, and, in their agony, they declared that it would be better to return to an unjust and painful past rather than make any attempt to reach a promised future.
The story of the scouts is one that I have read and studied countless times, but this year, the story feels incredibly important.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about fear and the way it can morph from personal insecurities into vague and generalized concerns and eventually, if unchecked, can become bigotry. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the way that our society seems to value a lack of self-awareness and self-reflection in those who have been entrusted with power.
The Israelites were afraid. Their leaders told them of challenges that would, without question, have been difficult to meet and overcome. Their fear caused them to forget or to disregard every bit of their own power and their own resources.
They were travelling in a camp that was protected by God’s presence and was led by columns of fire and cloud. They had escaped slavery in Egypt because their leaders and their God had intervened and rescued them from those who had oppressed them for hundreds of years.
And yet, the Israelites fear and their lack of awareness about their own strength made them immediately accept their leaders’ assertion that the way forward was impossible. The Israelites’ trust in the future was so tenuous that, when faced with doubts, they immediately began wishing to return to the oppression that they had just escaped.
Fear is a natural part of the human experience. It is understandable that the scouts would have been afraid when they saw civilizations that were well fortified and soldiers who appeared to be well trained. What is dangerous is that the scouts failed to use their fears as tools for self reflection or as catalysts for self development. Instead, they allowed their concerns to mutate until they projected outward- onto the people that they encountered- making them think that any strength that they found in others came at a direct cost for them.
The mutation of fear or insecurity into an outward facing menace and the decision to allow that mutated fear to forestall progress are two elements of this biblical story that we see all too frequently in our world today.
We can see the results of this kind of malignant fear in a recent incident at a lacrosse game between Fairfield Prep and Staples High School where Fairfield Prep fans chanted, “We have Christmas,” and, “Happy Hanukkah,” when players from the Staples team with stereotypically Jewish names played well or scored. Incidentally it was the same type of toxic fear that led fans of Wilton High School to chant, “Build the wall,” during a game against the more diverse Danbury High School.
We can see the destructive power that comes from projecting one’s fears rather than using them as tools for self-reflection when our leaders spend so much time vilifying and dehumanizing people unlike themselves rather than on working toward a viable path for all of us to reach a better future.
Unfortunately, in our parashah, there are dire consequences to the scouts’ failure to address their own insecurities and fears before they infected the rest of their people. There were dire consequences to the Israelites’ failure to know themselves well enough not to fall prey to their leaders’ pessimistic appraisal of the future. After God heard the people’s cries and their calls to return to a time when they may have been safe but were by no means free, God condemned that generation of Israelites to four decades of wandering.
God explains clearly exactly what purpose these additional 40 years in the wilderness were meant to serve, saying, “Nevertheless, as I live and as the LORD’s Presence fills the whole world, none of the men who have seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who have tried Me these many times and have disobeyed Me, shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers; none of those who spurn Me shall see it. [It will be your] children- who you said would be carried off- these will I allow to enter; they shall know the land that you have rejected.” (Numbers 14:21-23,31)
The fact that this parashah feels so relevant today is a testament to the enduring fact that humans will always feel fear. In fact, the Torah tells us that fear has been a part of the human experience since Adam and Eve quaked and hid as God called them to task for eating from the tree of knowledge. But, what we should understand from this parashah is just how much we hurt ourselves when we allow our fears to twist our perception of the world into “us” and “enemies” - when we fail to keep our fears from condemning us to more time wandering in the wilderness.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling afraid, but our parashah teaches us that there is everything wrong with allowing that fear to dictate the future of a community.
I pray that we will heed this lesson from our tradition and that we will do better than the scouts and the Israelites did when we are faced with moments of possibility.