One summer as visiting faculty at Greene Family Camp, I made the mistake of flicking through news headlines on my phone. They were filled with terror, pain, and discord. On one hand, I felt safe and comfortable at camp, surrounded by happy, boisterous campers soaking up the sun, Judaism, and each other. On the other hand, the headlines planted a seed of fear in my gut because of the unpredictability of the larger world.
Fear is a powerful emotion. For people with anxiety, even a little bit of fear can be crippling if our minds get wrapped up in playing over and over again all of the things that could possibly go wrong, regardless of how improbable they are.
Sometimes we talk about how it takes just one small candle to bring light to a dark room. However, there is another metaphor that I think better describes anxious fear. When mixing paint, it takes just a little bit of dark in a light color to mute it. If you start with an already dark color, it takes a whole lot of light to make significant changes in the hue. Sometimes anxiety and fear are like that dark paint, and it takes a whole lot of white to lighten things up.
In this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’cha, scouts are sent into the Promised Land to bring back a report to the former slaves in the wilderness. To summarize Numbers 13:25-33, 14:6:
At the end of forty days the scouts returned. They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community with a single cluster of grapes carried on a frame by two men, along with pomegranates — an ancient symbol of fertility, and figs — an ancient symbol of peace and prosperity.
They told those gathered: “The land does flow with milk and honey. However, the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large.”
Caleb says: “Let’s go! We will take it!”
The other officers say, “We can’t attack them; the people are big and strong, and the land is difficult. The people there are giants; we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.
“Our ancestors wished they had died in Egypt, or at least that they would die in the wilderness. It would be better to go back to Egypt than to watch their wives and children carried off as spoils of war.”
Joshua and Caleb heard this and mourned.
This episode dooms the generation that left Egypt to die in the wilderness. God promises with few exceptions that this generation will not enter the Promised Land (Numbers 14:20-24; 29-30).
They had the fruits brought from the Land to tempt them, they saw how good it could be, and they even had God with them, but they were stymied by fear.
Fear is a powerful emotion.
In many places around the world human beings are living with fear of terrorism, fear of politicians, fear of losing freedoms, fear of people who are different, fear of things changing, and fear of things staying the same.
On a personal level, I hear from people who fear the long-term effects of how we spend our time or resources, fear of not making a difference, and fear of the obstacles between where we stand right now and where we want to go.
The Promised Land, in a symbolic reading of Torah, need not be only the physical Land of Israel. We each can choose to journey towards a metaphoric Promised Land of relationship with God, community, and wholeness. On our journeys, like Caleb in this week’s parashah, we may see what is promised and say, “Let’s go!” Or we may be like the majority of the scouts who focused on the obstacles, and found themselves trapped in fear.
This Torah portion shows that to get into the Promised Land that is, relationship with God, community, and a sense of wholeness, we will face fearful times. Caleb exemplifies the hope of the promise and the confidence that hope can guide us through fear.
Psalm 23 says we are sheep and God is our Shepherd. “The Eternal One is my shepherd…. I fear no harm, for You are with me” (Ps. 23:1, 4). Whether in the form of headlines or personal obstacles, we recognize there are wolves around us, but there is also a greater Protector.
The generation that left Egypt was broken. They saw the miracles of the plagues, the Sea of Reeds splitting, the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and still they were plagued with more fear than hope, more dark than light. It is no wonder that there are those among us even today, those of us who do not recall those sights with our own mind’s eye, who forget to focus more on the hope than on the fear.
Focusing on hope brings us through whatever wilderness we wander in. There is an eternal struggle to balance righteousness and sins, and we get a snapshot of eternity in this short life of ours. The religious pursuit has us put our weight into righteousness.
The scouts that surveyed the Land and came back with more fear than hope spread that fear to an entire generation. Striving to live a religious life, we are challenged with the task of spreading more hope than fear. We are challenged with the task of carrying the light-colored paint. We do this through the words we share, the prayers we recite, the kindness we extend to others, and the justice we pursue.
We can each think of ourselves as sh’lichim — those sent out to survey the Promised Land. It is our place of milk and honey, our place of relationship with God, community, and wholeness. In pursuing hope, we can point to Caleb and Joshua as our models of those who come back and report: yes, there is darkness, but we do not need to be among those who die in the wilderness. Focusing on the light of hope can bring us to be among those who enjoy the fruits of the Promised Land.
I appreciate Rabbi Harris’ interpretation of the episode of the spies in this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’cha, and her statements about the power of fear. Fear is indeed powerful, yet it may not always be a negative emotion. When Caleb and Joshua twice implore the Israelites to “have no fear” of the Canaanites (Numbers 14:9), the Hebrew word yira (yod-reish-alef) is used. Yet the same word is used when we are told to fear God (Deuteronomy 5:26) and our parents (Leviticus 19:3). Fear can indeed be a positive force. It can even save our lives. Our brains are hard-wired to fear certain things, such as predatory animals, and fear can cause our bodies to release adrenaline to give us extra strength when our lives are at risk.
The problem is not that fear is inherently bad, it is that we sometimes fear the wrong things or use fear toward nefarious ends. Machiavelli famously concluded that it was better for a leader to be feared than loved, but as Jews, we are commanded to both fear and to love God. The mistake of the spies was not that they caused the Israelites to fear; it is that they only caused them to fear without including any hope. If we strive to accomplish a goal, the fear of failure can motivate us if and only if that fear is matched by a reasonable hope that we can accomplish our goal. Hope without any fear can leave us complacent or careless, yet fear without any hope can leave us paralyzed.
We should not live our lives without fear. Fear is natural and sometimes even necessary. Yet fear devoid of any hope prevents us from growing. Fear mixed with hope, however, can keep us moving forward toward that proverbial Promised Land — toward our bettering ourselves, our communities, and perhaps even the entire world.
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
Haftarah, Joshua 2:1−24
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,262−1,264; Revised Edition, pp. 998−1,000