JUNE 15, 2017 – In this week’s Torah portion Moses sends 12 leaders to scout the Promised Land. After 40 days, they return with a giant cluster of grapes, among other luscious fruits, to showcase the fertility of the land, one “flowing with milk and honey.”
However, the vitality that this land gives to its produce also seems to apply to its inhabitants. Ten out of the 12 scouts bring with them ill reports that they disseminate quickly in a wave of fear-mongering. They report that the people they’ll have to face in the land are a race of giants and mighty warriors with fortified citadels. The odds of victory are almost impossible:
“The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature. There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we looked in their eyes.” (Numbers 13:32-33)
At that moment, G-d decreed the entry into the land would be delayed for 40 years. It would be a new generation that deserved entry and possession.
Why were the people punished so harshly? What is the sin of being afraid?
A midrash tells us:
They said “We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes.” G-d said, “this I can overlook. But, ‘And so we look in their eyes’ – here I am angry! Did you know how I made you look in their eyes? Who told you that you didn’t look like angels in their eyes?” (Midrash Tanchuma).
The problem here is beyond fear and how we react in the face of adversity. What seems to anger G-d is an issue about self-perception.
The generation that left Egypt was a generation without hope either in themselves, in their leaders, in their project of a nation or in the G-d who had liberated them and given them the Torah. Their desire was to return to the land of their oppressors, to devolve once again to the slave mentality. They were a people that preferred humiliation and the whip, as long as there was food and shelter. It was very hard for the long-enslaved Israelites to grasp the idea of self-determination. In the face of adversity, their knee-jerk reaction was to go back to the known oppressor who was Pharaoh and his brutal regime. They thought that in Egypt, the Land of the Dead, they would not perish.
This episode is perhaps the greatest tragedy and sin of the generation that left Egypt. It will be their children who will merit to enter the land of Canaan.
The failure of leadership is dramatically marked in this week’s parsha as well. Moses and Aaron also lose their posture, literally falling in despair. This would shift their roles as the leaders of the nation, particularly showing us a more distant, elusive and disappointed Moses.
This is the big red line that divides the whole Book of Numbers too. What started with pomp and circumstance, with banners and trumpets and a conquering spirit at the beginning of the journey from Sinai morphed into a cacophonous mumbling of despair and desolation in their trek through the desert.
Among the spread of misinformation and projections of fear around the camp, two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, spread out a message of hope and encouragement.
What would have become of the Jewish people if we had been judged by our numbers throughout history? Where would the modern State of Israel be if it faltered when compared to the size of their neighboring aggressors during its short existence? How could we have done it without the “Joshuas” and the “Calebs” amongst ourselves?
The reflection in the pupil of the enemy’s eye should not be your vision of yourself. Never, ever allow this distorted “feel like a grasshopper” mentality, to enter your mind’s eye!
This applies to Jews who live in the diaspora, along with those who live in Israel. Our identity cannot ever be influenced by the subjective opinion of those who oppose us. That was their greatest sin then and it would be our greatest sin today.
The Torah reminds us to conquer our fears, to overcome the panic caused by staring into all the forces that oppose us as we cross the harshness of the Desert of the Real. The despair of the generation that left Egypt will then have to be slowly and patiently cleansed away, with time and people sinking in the desert sands like inside an hourglass.
At their journey’s end Moses will come out from a more reclusive role, with a poetic antidote to the words of despair, to all the mumblings and kvetchings!” and mutinous complaints that continued to accompany them. His swan song will be words of love, positive encouragement and faith. He will provide us with “Devarim” (the name of the Book of Deuteronomy that literally means “Words”). His speeches are reminders about the power of words and their usage for holiness, love and faith, the solution to desolation and gloom, as well as an encouragement to keep the commitment of the commandments and traditions that help us edify identity and purpose.
May this week’s Torah readings continue to remind each and every one of us always to carry the spirit of faith and posture in the face of fake or very real news.
“Chazak ve’ematz!” “Be Strong and Courageous!”
Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai in Marblehead.