On the Weekly Torah Portion of Shelach
This week’s Torah portion, Shelach (Numbers 13 – 15), describes yet another dramatic, pivotal moment in the sojourn of the people of Israel from Egypt to Canaan.
Soon after the people of Israel leave Sinai on their way East, Moses is instructed to send scouts to tour the land of Canaan:
שְׁלַח לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ אֶחָד אִישׁ אֶחָד לְמַטֵּה אֲבֹתָיו תִּשְׁלָחוּ כֹּל נָשִׂיא בָהֶם:Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them.” (Numbers 13:2).
That makes perfect sense: the newly liberated slaves, who have just received the Torah, are asked to walk towards an unknown land led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, walking into an unknown future. Sending their most reliable representatives ahead of them to scout the new land they are about to habit is a good idea. Those men, it is assumed, will then report of their journey, thereby giving the wilderness travelers a goal to strive towards which will sustain them during the long, arduous journey.
But as almost always in the Bible (and in life), things don’t go according to script. The scouts return, and confirm that the new land is “a land of milk and honey.” They even bring back some of its delicious fruit for the people to see and taste. But the message that ten of the twelve scouts convey is grim: the people living in Canaan, they report, are giants, and the people of Israel will stand no chance against them.
What ensues is a massive demoralization of the whole community.
וַתִּשָּׂא כָּל הָעֵדָה וַיִּתְּנוּ אֶת קוֹלָם וַיִּבְכּוּ הָעָם בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא: וַיִּלֹּנוּ עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן כֹּל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם כָּל הָעֵדָה לוּ מַתְנוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם אוֹ בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה לוּ מָתְנוּ: וְלָמָה יְהוָה מֵבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לִנְפֹּל בַּחֶרֶב נָשֵׁינוּ וְטַפֵּנוּ יִהְיוּ לָבַז הֲלוֹא טוֹב לָנוּ שׁוּב מִצְרָיְמָה: וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל אָחִיו נִתְּנָה רֹאשׁ וְנָשׁוּבָה מִצְרָיְמָה: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 Y-H-W-H 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)
Y-H-W-H’s response is fierce. At first, he intends to kill the entire ungrateful lot and start anew. As before, Moses acts as an appeaser, and God relents with the famous words:
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה סָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ:And Y-H-W-H says: “I pardon, as you have asked.” (Numbers 14:20)
But God does inflict a severe punishment: none of the people who have left Egypt as adults, i.e., who were above the age of twenty when the Exodus occurred, would actually make it into Canaan. The people of Israel will wonder in the wilderness for 40 years until the last person who has left Egypt as an adult dies out. The only exceptions: Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephuneh, two of the twelve spies, the only ones who tried to dissuade the people from turning their back on their mission.
Surely, this is not the first time in the story that the Israelites respond with whining and qwetching when faced with a real or imaginary difficulty. And on the face of it, the sin of the Golden Calf, which was a blunt violation of the first commandment right after it has been given, did not meet with such a response. So why such a strict response now?
The transgression of the scouts seems to be of a different nature altogether: It’s the sin of disbelief in the possibility of a miraculous outcome. The worse sin in Judaism, said Rabbi Michael Lerner, is the insistence that the presence is an indication of what is possible in the future; doubting the possibility of the emergence of something miraculously new. Such an attitude amounts to a denial of God.
Everything in nature bears the mark of such a miraculous emergence. For close to 14 billion years, by present calculations, molecules emerged out of atoms; self-replicating molecules emerged out of ordinary molecules; simple cells emerged out of a primordial soup of ingredients; specialized cells emerged, which led to the emergence of complex eukaryotic cells—and from them to multi-cellular organisms; and so forth.
From the point of view of each stage of the process, the emergence of the next step was unpredictable and miraculous. Nothing about fish predicts the emergence of life on dry land; nothing about reptiles predicts the emergence of mammals; nothing about apes predicts the emergence of human culture. And yet, stage after unpredictable miraculous stage, the process unfolds with awesome wonder.
Why is this possible? Why is this happening? From a religious point of view, it is because the Divine is everywhere. “There is no spot where He is not” says the Zohar. Or as this week’s Parasha expresses it:
וְיִמָּלֵא כְבוֹד יְהוָה אֶת כָּל הָאָרֶץ:As Y-H-W-H’s presence fills the whole earth. (Numbers 14:21).
Denying the possibility of miraculous emergence, in the face of repeated demonstration of its emergence, is the gravest sin. It is what determines whether one remains a slave or starts to move towards freedom.
* * *
Like all the stories in the Torah, the story of the scouts is about us. Particularly those of us who have had spiritual insights and who have directly perceived the miraculous. To what extent do we have the guts and heart to be true to the miraculous nature of what we have seen, so that we can bear witness to the Divine Omnipresence even when the going gets tough?
In Jesus’ last supper, he predicted that Peter, whom he called the “rock [upon which] I will build my church,” would betray him three times before the cock calls. And so it was: when the soldiers came, Peter forgot all the miracles and all his love for his master, and he succumbed to fear. Such was the sind of the spies.
Learning the Bible stories at school, I always wondered why the Israelites were so dumb. I was sure, that had I been there, I certainly would have made the right choices in all these obvious cases. But the truth is, that as we traverse the wilderness that is called “Life”, we are constantly challenged to be true to what we know to be the highest and to bear witness to God, even in the face of enormous challenges. The story of the scouts is the story of us.