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The Drama with the Spies in Israel

Friday, 1 July, 2016 - 3:00 pm


The Israeli parliament, or Knesset, convened an emergency session to figure out a solution for the devastated Israeli economy.

One brilliant minister said, "Let's declare war on the U.S. In the wake of the utter destruction they will bring upon us, we will receive billions of dollars for reconstruction, like Germany and Japan."

"Sounds great," responded another member of the Knesset. "But what will we do if we win the war?"

This week's Torah portion, Shelach, describes the dramatic episode that unfolded 15 months after the Jewish Exodus from Egyptian slavery. The people of Israel were poised to enter the land promised by G-d to their ancestors. Moses dispatched 12 men—"all prestigious individuals, leaders of Israel"—to survey the Holy Land and report back on the nature of its terrain, its produce and its inhabitants.

Forty days later, on the eighth day of Av in 2449 since creation, or 1312 BCE, the spies returned, bearing samples of the land's huge and luscious fruit and an assessment: 

"We arrived at the Land to which you sent us, and indeed it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. But the people that dwell in the land are powerful, the cities are tremendously fortified, and we saw giants there. We cannot go up against those people, for they are mightier than we," the spies proclaimed.

Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, returned with a different message: "If G-d desires us," they declared to their 10 colleagues, "He will bring us to this Land and give it to us... But do not rebel against G-d! Fear not the people of the Land, for they are our bread... G-d is with us."

The people, however, would not listen to the two isolated voices. The report that the other 10 spies gave demoralized the Jews and drained them of the motivation to enter the Land. All night, says the Bible, the Jewish people cried to Moses and bemoaned their fate: "If only we had died in Egypt or in the wilderness! Why is G-d bringing us to this Land to fall by the sword? Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?!"

As a result, G-d informed Moses that the generation that received the Torah at Sinai would not enter the Land. They would, instead, live out their lives in the wilderness. Only their children, the next generation, would enter the Land.

For the next four decades, the Jews would wander in the desert. Only in year 1276 BCE, 40 years after their exodus, would their children and grandchildren finally cross the Jordan River, and conquer and settle the Promised Land.

All punishments in Torah have to be understood as “remedies” rather than punishments. Why would someone who loves you ever “punish” you? If G-d loves His people unconditionally, like a mother loves her child, why would He ever punish us? Answer: He would not!

When we “punish” our children, sometimes it is not about an educational strategy to help them shine and become the diamonds they are capable of becoming. Punishments are often about getting even, letting off steam, showing who is boss, “teaching you a lesson not to start up with me,” or simply a loss of temper.

What is the point of G-d punishing the Jews with perishing in the desert? Was this simply G-d getting even?

Maimonides saw this Divine edict as a remedy, not as a punishment. Maimonides suggests that the mass hysteria which consumed the Jews after hearing the spies' reports of the land of Israel demonstrated to the Almighty that the nation was psychologically and emotionally unready to conquer the land. Decades of oppression, slavery and suffering under the brutal Egyptian empire deprived them of the courage and confidence required to win wars and create their own society. The Jews had left Egypt, but Egypt had not left them. They possessed neither the dignity nor the self-assurance critical to reclaiming G-d's gift to them: the land of Israel. They had slave mentalities.

How do we transform slaves into free-minded individuals? Such a dramatic change cannot happen overnight. G-d therefore contrived a two-point plan to prepare His people for the challenging road ahead. First, He had them spend four decades in wilderness. It is a well-known fact that traveling in the desert, being deprived of physical enjoyments such as bathing, and subjecting the body to the wildlife, produces courage.

"Despite the fact that the slave mentality was too deeply ingrained in the  first generation of Jewish adults raised in Egyptian slavery, during their wanderings, another generation arose, one that was not accustomed to degradation and slavery," Maimonides writes. G-d realized it would take a generation raised in freedom to possess the courage required to fight the battles of conquest and create a Jewish society on the soil of the land of their forefathers.

Did you ever see a circus? Remember those huge elephants that weighed several tons who were held in place by a small chain wrapped around one of their huge legs, and held to the ground by a small wooden stake? If those huge elephants wanted to, they could walk right through those small chains and that small wooden stake like a hot knife going through butter. But they don’t. Why not?

When they were little baby elephants, they were chained down by those same small chains and the small wooden stakes. As babies, they couldn’t move. They tried and tried and tried again and could not release themselves from those chains and stakes. Eventually, they gave up. They developed a belief that they could not get out. As adult elephants, they don’t try to escape because they are programmed to believe that their efforts would be in vain through their memories of when they were babies. They are held in prison by their beliefs.

The same is true with the elephant in each of us. The spies declared: “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so were we in their eyes.” As a result, the nation wept. The spies caused the Jews to perceive themselves as small and futile “grasshoppers.” Thus they also came to believe that everyone else looked at them as mere grasshoppers. When you think you are weak, you believe that everyone considers you the same. You become meek, timid, and paralyzed.

It was Caleb who declared, “We can do it!” We are not weak, we are not frail. This is the confidence we so desperately need today—individually and as a people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky
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