This week’s d’var Torah on parshat Shelach Lecha.
As we prepare to leave our High School Road property and head to a new home (not to mention starting to think about leaving the wilderness of Zoom), it’s fitting that we should read about our ancestors wandering for forty years in the desert. Hopefully, our journey to the Promised Land will not take quite as long, but it always helps when we can see how the people in our sacred story encounter of the same challenges we face today.
Believe it or not, making the Israelites wander for forty years in the desert was NOT God’s original plan. Rather, it was the events of this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, that led to this consequence. Before the Israelites can cross over into the Promised Land, an arrival that, at this juncture, is supposed to be imminent, God tells Moses to send twelve scouts—one from each tribe—on a reconnaissance mission. They are to visit the land and report back to Moses and the Israelites.
There are two essential questions on their minds: How difficult will it be to conquer the land and its inhabitants? And how difficult will it be to settle in the land and thrive there?
In a sense, these questions should have already been answered. God has promised the people a land flowing with milk and honey, a place where they will be safe, secure, and autonomous. But the people are anxious and antsy; they want to see the Promised Land for themselves and form their own opinions. And so God tells Moses to dispatch the 12 scouts.
What happens next is, to say the least, not ideal. Like any new situation, the Promised Land offers both pros and cons. When the scouts return to Moses, they are carrying a cluster of grapes so large that it takes two men to carry it. Then, a clear majority of the scouts offer this report:
“We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, …. We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we…. 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 13:27-29, 31-33).
The minority report comes from the two better-known scouts, Joshua and Caleb, and is more optimistic:
“The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land. If God is pleased with us, the Eternal will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against the Eternal. Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey: their protection has departed from them, but the Eternal is with us. Have no fear of them!” (Numbers 13:30, 14: 7-9).
But the Israelites have already made up their minds. They weep and wail throughout they night. They threaten to pelt the optimistic Joshua and Caleb with stones. They demand that an already harried Moses take them back to Egypt, where they at least knew what each day would bring.
One would imagine that this reaction would anger Moses, not to mention Joshua and Caleb. But the deepest, harshest of the anger in this moment comes from God. God threatens to wipe out the people entirely. Only through Moses’ intervention does God have a change of heart. God decides not to destroy the people, but instead decrees that they will wander in the wilderness for forty years, until the generation that left Egypt has died out. Only Joshua and Caleb will have the privilege of making the entire journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.
Why is God so angry? God had to know that sending 12 Israelites, 12 human beings, into the Promised Land would mean that they would return with at least 12 perspectives, as well as 12 sets of understandably mixed emotions.
Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, Ph.D. offers an interesting perspective on the source of this anger:
“Some years ago,” she writes. “I began to read the Torah as a love story between God and God’s people…. an allegorical story of a people who are seeking and yearning to find their way into an intimate relationship with God; hoping, dreaming, imagining, and believing that God does the same; that God is waiting for us to find our way to love, patience, intimacy, and trust. The main threat to this biblical love story seems to be a lack of patience—often from God’s side and sometimes from the side of the people” (The Mussar Torah Commentary, pp. 229-230).
In this moment, then, Rabbi Pilz explains, “God’s anger and impatience seem to be the understandable reaction of a disappointed partner: ‘I wanted you to trust Me, and you didn’t! I want you to be brave and go on a journey with Me, and you doubted My ability to take care of you!’ …. God expects the people to be both brave and trusting, and when they are not, God reacts with angry disappointment. God punishes the spies and the people for being anxious and hesitant” (The Mussar Torah Commentary, pp. 231-232).
Both God and the Israelites are asked to do move beyond their most deeply-held emotions. The Israelites must have faith in something they cannot yet know for certain—and in all fairness, might seem unlikely. They have to be steadfast in their faith even when everything around them is constantly changing. And God must boldly lead the people through a radical change, while also making space for their doubts and their anxiety.
And in this moment, both partners in this love story fail one another.
According to Rabbi Pilz, this moment requires the spiritual trait of savlanut, or patience, whose root literally means “to carry a burden” or even, “to suffer.”
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe says that, “The patient person is exactly like someone who is carrying a heavy package. Even though it weights upon him, he continues to go on his way, and doesn’t take a break from carrying it. The same is true in all the relationships that are between people…” (The Mussar Torah Commentary, p. 229).
Rabbi Pilz adds that, “Often, to love means to endure and forgive each other, while continuing to celebrate and care for each other. Love requires us to contain our own pain while continuing to care for others… this is the essence of patience—and to me, this is the essence of love” (The Mussar Torah Commentary, p. 229).
In this moment, we are being called to do show the same kind of loving savlanut that proved so difficult for God and for the Israelites in this Torah portion. Our membership was asked to place their trust in the leadership of this congregation to represent our best interests and make important decisions about our future. Probably the last time there had to be this much faith in our leadership was when they were choosing a new rabbi! And our leadership, including myself, need to be patient and understanding as we guide our community towards a new destination. We all need to help each other carry our vision for the future and our nostalgia for the past, as well as the myriad emotions that occupy our present: anxiety, fear and sadness; curiosity, excitement, and hope.
May our community be blessed with the savlanut to endure and forgive each other, to celebrate and care for one another, and most of all, to hold each other up as we take this next step forward.
Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz