Recap: In last week’s portion, B’haalot'cha, the Israelites traveled from the Sinai desert to the Paran desert, moving with the cloud that had settled over the tabernacle. They complained about not having meat and Moses became frustrated. God gave them quail and they feasted, but God killed the gluttonous people. Miriam and Aaron reproached Moses about marrying a Kushite woman. Miriam was infected with a skin disease, tzara’at, and spent seven days healing outside the camp.
Cast of Characters: God, Moses, the 12 Spies (featuring Caleb and Joshua,) and the Israelites
Setting: Desert of Paran
Summary: God told Moses to send out men, one from each of the twelve tribes, to explore the land of Canaan, the Promised Land. At the end of their forty-day journey, ten of the spies reported that Canaan is full of bounty but also full of “giants” and fortified cities. They felt like “grasshoppers” in comparison! Joshua and Caleb, two of the spies, touted God’s loyalty and insisted that they should go into the land. Yet, the people trusted the pessimistic spies and God became furious. God annihilated the ten spies and their offspring, but saved Joshua and Caleb’s families.
God told Moses to instruct the people that, when they enter Canaan, they must give offerings to God and treat the stranger with respect. God detailed the punishment for disobeying the instructions: being cut off from the community. God tells Moses to instruct the people regarding wearing blue fringes on the corners of their garments. By gazing upon the fringes, they will remember God’s commandments and loyalty throughout the ages.
What prompts Caleb and Joshua to speak out against the other spies?
Does God’s punishment of the ten pessimistic spies fit their crime?
How does the punishment of separation from the community relate to the crime of disrespecting the stranger?
How did the commandment to wear fringes of blue evolve into our custom of wearing tallitot?
Have you ever felt so eager for a new experience, only to be discouraged when you realized how daunting your task actually was? Perhaps the hill on your beautiful new cycling route was steeper than you felt able to handle. Or maybe an exciting new project at work became more tedious work than you expected. If you’ve had such an experience, you’re not alone. In this week’s Torah portion, Sh'lach L’cha, the Israelites encounter a similar situation.
The Israelites were almost at Canaan, the Promised Land, and their emotions were running high! Imagine how they might have felt after so many years of journeying through the wilderness. Sensing this emotional rollercoaster, God instructed Moses to send twelve spies to scout out the land. When the spies entered Canaan, they saw a land flowing with milk and honey. They took in the scent of grapes, pomegranates, and figs. I imagine that they were mesmerized by the bounty of the land! And then, they noticed the powerful residents, their fortified cities, and a few of their historical enemy tribes. Suddenly, their feelings of elation morphed into fear. Ten of the twelve spies allowed their fear to prevail over their faith in God and themselves. Those ten fearful spies caused the entire community to lose faith and were punished --they were destined to die in the desert and never enter Canaan, while Joshua and Caleb, the two spies that maintained faith, were permitted to enter the Promised Land.
This story, though dramatized, is incredibly relatable. We too may feel that we cannot face the hill in front of us, the project before us, or the powerful people around us. Like the ten spies who felt like “grasshoppers” in comparison to the powerful people of the land, we may feel inadequate to complete the challenge ahead. Yet, if we allow fear to overcome faith, we are far less likely to enter our personal “promised land.” May we emulate Caleb and Joshua, facing our challenges with courage, confidence, and certainty in ourselves and God.
Written by second-year Rabbinical Student, Sarah Rosenbaum, who served as the Am Shalom Summer Rabbinic Intern in 2015.