The Jewish people's turbulent saga of disillusionment with liberation takes a new and momentarily promising turn this Shabbat, with a foray into the land of Canaan by twelve scouts. Coming on the heels of a sickening surfeit of quails, and Miriam and Aaron's calamitous criticism of Moses, this expedition seems designed to turn the Israelites' attention from the discomforts of the present and the nostalgic idealization of the past to the blessings of the future.
Returning from their journey with a cluster of grapes so immense it required two men to carry it, the spies report that, as promised, the land does "flow with milk and honey" (Numbers 13:27). Archeological evidence substantiates the biblical account. Unlike the topography of modern Israel, the valleys of ancient Canaan were apparently well-watered. The hillsides, by contrast, were heavily forested and populated only by wildlife, including wild goats that foraged there, and bushes, trees, and flowers that allowed bees to flourish. The "milk and honey" flowing in this wilderness, so different from that of Sinai, came from the goats and bees that populated the landscape in such profusion (Nogah Hareuveni, Ecology in the Bible [Kiryat Ono: Neot Kedumim, 1974], p. II).
Nature's bounty, however, is not the sole subject of the spies' narrative. They bring word of fortified cities populated by "giants." "We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we. . . . The country we traversed . . . devours its settlers . . . " (Numbers 13:31-33). The Torah calls these words "calumnies," destructive falsehoods, reflecting the spies' lack of confidence in themselves and God, rather than objective reality, and a midrashic tradition condemns the ten as slanderers and "fools" (B'midbar Rabbah 16:2). Nehama Leibowitz calls the spies "propagandists," injecting their subjective opinions in the guise of objective reports and mixing fact and fiction (Studies in Bemidbar, pp. 138-141). The predictable effect of these untruths, whether conscious or subconscious, is demoralization. The community breaks into loud cries and weeping, turning against Moses and Aaron. "Why is the Eternal taking us to that land to fall by the sword?…Let us head back for Egypt" (Numbers 14:3-4).
Joshua and Caleb, alone among the twelve, exhort the people to trust God and themselves, but to no avail. God, exasperated, threatens to annihilate the people and offers to make of Moses "a nation far more numerous than they" (Numbers 14:12). Moses, to his credit, rejects this heady proposal and appeals to God's self-interest. If you destroy the Israelites, he argues, the Egyptians will conclude that You, God, are unable to fulfill your promises. Forgive this people, as is Your nature (see Numbers 14:11-19).
God accedes to this appeal, but on one, awful condition. Of the adults who left Egypt, only Joshua and Caleb shall survive to enter the Promised Land. When the divine decree is conveyed, the people are overcome with grief. Finally, too late, they realize the gravity of their situation and are willing to enter the Land, "for we were wrong" to doubt God (Numbers 14:40). Heedless of Moses's warning that they are doomed, the Israelites attempt to enter Canaan, only to be dealt "a shattering blow" by the Amalekites and Canaanites.
If the episode of the quail in last week's parashah reminds us that it is possible to have too much of a good thing, that getting what we long for may be a curse, rather than a blessing, this week's portion stresses the significance of self-confidence and self-esteem. The wording of the spies' report is hardly accidental. "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them." As we learn again and again in our own day, if we lack a firm belief in ourselves and the justice of the Jewish people's claim to a fair share of Eretz Yisrael, others, too, will surely doubt us and reject the legitimacy of that claim even more vehemently than they may do already. More importantly, we will lack the patience and fortitude necessary to persevere in the face of determined opposition and relentless slander, hostility, and violence.
We also learn here the importance of good timing, the urgency of seizing unique opportunities and accepting the accompanying risks. Had the newly-liberated Israelites done so, the Torah suggests, they would have reached their intended destination in peace, rather than dying in the wilderness. God willing, the opportunity for a lasting peace in the Middle East will arrive someday soon. When it does, I pray that, notwithstanding tragic past mistakes and misdeeds, all parties involved will have the wisdom to recognize that opportunity and the courage to seize it.
Rabbi Richard A. Block is senior rabbi of The Temple - Tifereth Israel in Cleveland, Ohio. He is a president-elect of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the vice chair of the Reform Pension Board.
A baseball scout is responsible for traveling from town to town, observing the players on a particular team, and then reporting back to his superiors about their strengths and weaknesses so the team can form a strategy when they face off against their opponents.
Likewise, the twelve scouts, or spies, that Moses sends into the land of Canaan are specifically instructed to take note of the nature of the people who dwell there so that the Israelites can best prepare themselves for an imminent battle to take possession of the Promised Land. Before that, however, they are told to take note of the quality of the soil and the landscape of the territory.
It was critical for Moses and the people to know just how fertile the land of Canaan was. After all, they had to be able to produce enough food to feed the entire nation and all of their livestock. Would it be like Egypt with plentiful produce or like the arid dessert wilderness where only God could supply the Israelites with their necessary nutrients?
The scouting report for the Land is overwhelmingly positive. It flows with milk and honey. The twelve spies bring back an enormous cluster of grapes as proof of the richness of the Land. Indeed, it is a good land.
This notion of a "good" land is an extension of God's proclamations in the beginning of Genesis that each part of the created world is tov, "good." Several chapters later God promises Abraham that his decedents will multiply when they live in the land of Canaan. Its goodness will provide sustenance for the multitude of Israelites who will ultimately dwell there.
Sh'lach L'cha reinforces the notion that, when treated with care and respect for God, the earth is a source of sustenance for all who dwell upon it. It then becomes a human challenge to figure out how to coexist peacefully so that the abundant natural resources can be shared equitably among all peoples, rather than becoming a source of conflict.
Rabbi Kevin M. Kleinman is the assistant rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.
"Sh'lach L'cha, Numbers 13:1–15:41
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,107–1,122; Revised Edition, pp. 977–997;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 869–892