I think it's fair to say that just about everybody knows that the Israelites were condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years, a biblical generation. With the exceptions of Joshua and Caleb, all those who had witnessed the redemption at the sea would die without ever setting foot into the Promised Land. What led to their life sentence of ceaseless wandering, however, is less well known. This week's parashah—Sh'lach L'cha—tells that story.
The setting is clear: Israel is on the verge of entering the Land of which they and their ancestors have spoken and dreamed. The moment is pregnant with excitement and trepidation. Moses, on directions from God, has sent in an advance team, one scout from each of the twelve tribes. And now, after forty days of reconnoitering the land, they return with pomegranates and figs, with a cluster of grapes so large it takes two men to carry it. They tell of a Land of extraordinary wonders, of an abundance of wondrous natural resources, a Land that truly "flows with milk and honey" (see Numbers 13:27, 14:8). But they also tell of fortress cities and the inhabitants of the Land, of a people whose physical size is both intimidating and daunting. The people respond with cries of fear. They want to go back to Egypt. Moses and Aaron are beside themselves (once again). Only Joshua and Caleb, two of the twelve scouts, want to continue on with their sacred journey. For this they will merit the reward of eventually crossing the Jordan River. As for everyone else, they will neither enter the Land nor return to Egypt. They will drift aimlessly in the wilderness of Sinai until they die.
The question is why? What was their sin? What was so grievous that prohibited an entire people from ever reaching their destination? And perhaps even more to the point, what lesson is Torah trying to teach us?
The obvious answer is that the people lost faith in God. After everything that God had done for them, after all the miracles and wonders, to assume that they would fall prey to this next obstacle indicated that they had learned nothing. Some will blame the other ten scouts for their negative and pessimistic, perhaps dishonest report of the Land, and of course, for the people's willingness to believe them and not Joshua and Caleb. But in this story, in particular in the scouts' recounting of their observations, lies another possibility.
"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 . . . and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them." (Numbers 13:32-33)
On this passage the Kotzker Rebbe (Menachem Mendel Morgenstern of Kotzk) reacts:
"This was one of the sins of the scouts, ' . . . we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves. . . .' While this is possible to understand, but '. . . so we must have looked to them . . .'? What's with this? What do you care how you appear to the eyes of others?" (Itturei Torah, vol. 5, p. 83)
In other words, their sin wasn't simply that they lost faith or that the scouts had misrepresented what they had seen. Indeed, in another comment on the same verse, the Kotzker Rebbe is clear that the scouts had actually "spoken the truth" in their report (Amud Ha-Emet, s.v. Sh'lach L'cha). Their failure wasn't even that they had low self-esteem, that they saw themselves as grasshoppers. For this they could be forgiven. Rather it was their preoccupation with how others saw them that was their sin.
In a text frequently attributed to the same Chasidic commentator, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, this perspective of a soulful integrity is more clearly spelled out: "If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you" (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters [NY, NY: Schocken Books, 1948], p. 283). For Kotzk the essence of one's mission in life was to be true to oneself. Spiritual authenticity. The failure of that generation escaping Egypt was that they were incapable of self-reflection.
We are not so different.
How often we see ourselves through the eyes of others. How easy it is for us to define ourselves in relation to the other. We wonder what s/he will think. We worry about how we look, as if somehow our appearance in the eyes of someone else is all that matters. But it is nothing more than another form of slavery, this preoccupation not with who we are but with how we think we are perceived.
Perhaps then the Israelites not being permitted to enter the Land was less a punishment and more "You're not yet ready" to merit the privilege of dwelling in that sacred space? Perhaps, if we embrace the Kotzker's perspective, the right to leave the wilderness and enter the Land is reserved only for those who have shed the shackles of slavery, especially the bonds we impose upon ourselves? Perhaps the faith our ancestors needed was the ability to believe in themselves? Perhaps this is what it really means to be free?
The name of this week's Torah portion is often rendered simply as Sh'lach. It is the verb "to send." In fact, however, the full name of the parashah is Sh'lach L'cha. The second word, L'cha, albeit rarely translated is, I believe, instructive. Literally the phrase means "Send to yourself" or "Send for yourself." This is how I interpret the phrase. No matter the task, no matter the challenge, the success of my mission depends entirely on how I see myself as being integral to its fulfillment. If my concern is focused on how I will appear, if my focus is on whom I will please or displease, then I act without integrity. Lest we forget, the opening words of this parashah—Sh'lach L'cha—is uttered in the singular. It speaks to you.
Rabbi Steven Kushner is concluding his 35th year as the rabbi of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey.
At an intergenerational leadership conference, we were split into small groups and asked to articulate a vision for the Jewish future. But rather than uttering words of praise and hope, what came out of the mouths of the other members of my group were concerns and fears. It was familiar territory: assimilation, intermarried couples raising non-Jewish children, detachment from Jewish institutions, anti-Semitism, sparse Jewish adult education. The list was lengthy and legitimate. But the call to envision another possibility was silenced.
Rabbi Kushner poignantly decried the many sins—faithlessness, low self-esteem, and perhaps most devastatingly, a crushing lack of spiritual authenticity—that kept the Israelites from the Promised Land. For these reasons and more, then and now, we are unable to hear hopeful voices that call us to envision a different future.
But hopeful voices are plentiful. Adults are reading PJ Library books to toddlers before bed. URJ summer camps resound with children singing Birkat HaMazon. Teens trained at the Religious Action Center's L'Taken social justice seminars are using Jewish language to voice their deepest convictions with legislators. Jewish educators and clergy and Hillel professionals and professors are debating with their students. Rabbis and young Jewish adults are meeting in coffee shops and their conversation is reigniting our prophetic call to social justice. Cantors are giving expression to their congregants' longing to connect with God. Adults are accessing Jewish learning through a multiplicity of channels including the one you are reading right now. Lay leaders are using words of Torah and their professional expertise to guide their communities. Jewish chaplains are counseling Jews through illness and the end of life with expert skill in pastoral care.
Perhaps these voices represent the grapes dangling in clusters before us. Abundant, weighty, delicious, sometimes intoxicating, and supported by the strength of many. Ultimately, however, they are just the fruit that we have picked from their source. They are just a taste of what lies before us.
We are headed toward a sweet, sustaining, and yes, unknown and unfamiliar future. May we walk toward that future with hope, authenticity, and vision, and not let our fear preclude us from reaching it.
Rabbi Ariana Silverman is the Interim Manager of Lifelong Learning for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. In her spare time, she teaches and learns from young Jewish adults in downtown Detroit, Michigan.
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