Parshat Shelach Lechah
1. Shabbat Shalom
2. As the People of Israel move through the desert from Mt. Sinai to the Promised Land, they begin to complain. I can tell you, from my time leading a tour to Israel, when people are traveling, they do a lot of complaining. The food is too hot, too cold or there is not enough to eat. The schedule is too hard, or to light, and they don’t want to see the sights you have chosen. Even when they have a wonderful day, travelers have a tendency to latch on to the one problem they encountered and they quickly forget all the good things that may have happened. Think about this, we could be spending the night in the presidential suite, but if the bed is too hard, that is all that we will remember.
3. Of all the rebellions, the rebellion of the spies is clearly the most serious and the one with the greatest punishment. If this were just about the leadership of Moses and Aaron, then the rebellion of Korah would be a greater problem. If this were just about food, then the lusting after meat would be the greatest problem. What was it about the report of the spies that makes this the most serious rebellion in need of the strictest punishment?
4. On the one hand we could say that this is a leadership issue. The leaders of all the tribes go on this scouting mission and when they come back, most of the people take their cue from their leaders. If the leadership of the tribes would not be behind the effort to conquer the Promised Land, it would not be possible to enter the land. This would leave the people stuck in the wilderness. It is not a good thing but not worth a terrible punishment.
5. I believe that the issue here is not about the leaders of the tribes going out on a spy mission. Rather the problem lies in the way they make their report on what they have seen. Everyone agrees about the facts of the case. As we read in our Parsha, “We came to the land that you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.” They showed the people a cluster of grapes that was so heavy that it took two men to carry the cluster back. But when it came time to interpret the facts of the case, here there was a great problem. The spies’ report in our Parsha concludes, “However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there.” they conclude their report saying, “and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” In other words, the land was filled with giant people living in giant cities protected by giant walls. We will be like insects, easily crushed.
6. This is not a problem of facts, it is a problem of perception. How big are these so called “giants”? How many people exactly are in these “large” cities? Just how tall is a “giant” wall? And if the scouts feel small in relation to the walls, well that tells us more about the scouts than it does about the inhabitants of the land. It is hard for us to know the facts about the inhabitants of the land if we are viewing them from the perspective of grasshoppers. The essence of the failure of the spies is that they did not believe in themselves and they did not believe in the power of God to secure them a victory.
7. Now we can see why this rebellion is punished so severely; it is a failure of faith, faith in themselves and faith in God. They had no way of knowing how the inhabitants of the land looked at them. We will learn in Parshiyot yet to come, that the Moabites so feared the People of Israel that they hired a man to curse them. In our haftara we learn that the inhabitants of the promised land were terrified of the People of Israel, having seen how they had completely vanquished all their enemies. Maybe the People of Israel were small like grasshoppers, but, apparently, to the inhabitants of the Promised Land, they were like a swarm of locusts, devouring everything and everyone in their path. No wonder that Caleb and Joshua are horrified by the report of the majority of the spies and no wonder God takes this lack of faith so seriously that God determines that this generation must die in the wilderness so that their children can inherit the land that their parents are too insecure to conquer.
8. The late Rabbi Bernard Raskas once wrote, “Many of us treat religion as we do the little plastic case on an airplane labeled, ‘pull down only in case of emergency.’ Those of us who seek religious integrity realize that it isn’t just an emergency hatch to be used for sudden escape when disaster strikes. To be of real use in time of trouble, [faith] must have become a regular and disciplined part of our lives long before there was trouble. Otherwise, it is very likely to be merely an exercise in futility.” If we need to be strong to recover from an illness, we need to exercise before we get sick. If we want to know what to do in an emergency, we need to learn about emergencies long before we have to encounter one. If we want to have faith in times of distress, we will need to have faith in the good times as well.
9. Understanding goes a long way when we are in unfamiliar surroundings. We once took our three children on a surprise trip to Disney World. We woke them up early in the morning so we could have a full day in the park. My son started complaining right away that we had promised him a trip to Disney World and we had yet to fulfill our promise. His sister, older and paying attention to the road, saw the signs we were following and said to him, “Pay attention! Don’t you see that we are on our way right now to Disney World?” A little understanding changed his misery into excitement.
10. We too have a hard time having faith. Like the People of Israel, we don’t always stop to consider where we are going and how we are going to get there. All too often we are wandering through life without any idea of what our goals might look like. We complain often about the bumps in the road and the hardships of living life day by day. But without goals, we are like travelers without a map and too embarrassed to ask for directions. We will never get to our destination.
11. But if we are lost, whose fault is that! We may be destined to win the lottery but we will never fulfill our destiny if we never buy a ticket. We may be destined for fame and fortune but we will never attain it if we never go any further from home then to our mailbox. We could be living lives of adventure and excitement but we need to be home in time to make the early bird dinner!
12. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells a story of a time that he and his wife went on a vacation to the Rocky Mountains, to a resort on a pristine mountain lake. There were all kinds of trails to hike and paths to explore. There were also signs everywhere warning about bears. They said that the bears could run faster than people, climb higher than people and and were very dangerous to confront. “Do not get close to the Bears” the signs warned. On the first morning at the resort, when the Kushners went down for some breakfast they met one of the park rangers who had stopped in for a cup of coffee to ward off the cold mountain morning. The Kushners and the ranger talked a bit about the park and the animals and finally the rabbi asked the real question on his mind. He asked, “You don’t think the bears will come this close to the resort do you? If we were to take the easy hike around the lake, we would not confront any bears there would we?” The ranger took a slow sip of coffee and thought about the question behind the question. Finally the ranger answered, “If I could tell you that there were no bears out there then it would not be a wilderness would it?” The rabbi and his wife took their hike and had a wonderful week in the mountains.
13. Our fears tell us more about ourselves then they tell us about the world in which we live. Sure there are dangers out there, there are lions and tigers and yes bears. There are con artists, crooks and unsavory people. There are all kinds of sudden dangers we may have to confront if we leave the comfort of our homes. But if we are to enjoy the wonders of this incredible world, we are going to have to have some faith that everything will turn out alright in the end.
14. I am always amazed when people tell me that they have never visited Israel. It is such an extraordinary land and the Jews who live there are an inspiration to Jews everywhere. Why do Jews choose not to visit the Promised Land? Many times it is because they are afraid. They are afraid of Arabs. They are afraid of terrorism. They are afraid of getting hurt or killed because Israel is such a dangerous place. The reality is that acts of terrorism in Israel are so rare that it is still news whenever one happens. Israel is one of only a few nations that are able to offer security for her citizens in spite of the dangers all around. I remind you that more people die on Interstate 95 each year than die of terror related activities in Israel. Israel may have other issues in society, but personal security is not one of them. It is only fear that keeps people away, a fear based on how they see themselves rather than on the real situation in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
15. We need only to take the time to learn about Israel, to learn about our city, to learn about bears to know when we are placing ourselves in danger. When we know what is dangerous, we can have more faith that things will turn out well. God had given us good minds so that we can prepare ourselves for whatever life may bring. It is often only ignorance that keeps us home and afraid. The early Hasidic Masters used to teach that a person with a lantern never has to be afraid of the dark. A person with the lamp of learning never has to be afraid of what goes bump in the night.
16. The lack of faith our ancestors had in themselves and in God resulted in 40 years of wandering in the desert. Not because God was not powerful enough to bring them victory, but because they did not have the heart for the fight. Each day they wandered they had to face the fact that it was only their own fear that kept them from their goals. Let us resolve not to let our fears get the better of us. Let us spend some time each day learning about the world, learning about the the things that we fear so that if and when we have to confront them, we will be ready.
17. Let us stretch our minds, widen our horizons and face our fears. Let us have faith in God that whatever we may encounter, we can face it and overcome it if we but prepare ourselves in advance. We can aspire to the stars if we turn our eyes upward to God. God has given us great talents to take us to distant and wonderful places. All we need to do is to prepare our minds and have faith, faith that we can understand more, do more and be more than we ever thought possible. With that kind of faith, everything in life will be, for us, as a blessing.
May God bless us with courage, understanding and faith so that we may get the most out of all of our days as we say…. AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM