Parshat Shelach

Torah Reading for Week of May 30 – June 5, 2010

“The Challenge of the Spies”

by Tamar Frankiel, PhD
AJRCA Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Comparative Religion

This parsha opens with the story of the sin of the spies, which led to forty years of wandering in the wilderness. This event carries echoes of the worst previous sin, that of the golden calf a year before. In each, G-d threatened to destroy the Jewish people; in each, resolution came from Moshe’s recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, the only two times that recitation occurs in the Torah. In addition, the “murmurings” against Moshe in last week’s parsha remind us of the times a year before that the people had also complained for lack of food and water.

With these parallels between the two times of complaining, the two great sins, and their resolution, the Torah seems to invite comparison and contrast. What can we learn from this?

The apparent failure of Moshe to return from the mountaintop led to the crisis of the calf. In a state of panic that turned into mania, the people created a substitute that they could worship. At the sin of the spies, leadership was again the issue in a different way: ten of the spies questioned and rebelled against him.

As Nechama Liebowitz points out, those spies gave three different reports. To Moshe they said, “We came into the Land . . . it does flow with milk and honey; nevertheless the people are fierce. . . and the cities strongly fortified.” When Caleb urged preparation for immediate conquest, they told him, “We are not able to go against the people; they are stronger than we.” Then, when they spoke to the rest of Bnei Yisrael, they said, “The land . . . eats up its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of great size.” The three different stories reveal the spies’ own internal conflict. They report to Moshe with reasonable accuracy. To their colleague, they challenge his assessment. To the people, they exaggerate in order to turn everyone against the project, and against Moshe. After the murmurings and complaints of the previous parsha, this was not a difficult job.

With the golden calf incident, the people just had to sit and wait; but like anxious children, they could not tolerate the anxiety. At the time of the spies, they had been confronted with adult responsibility. G-d was asking them to get moving – go into the world, take responsibility for their mission, and defeat all obstacles. For this, the people were far less ready than Moshe thought. G-d too was disappointed.

Yet this is human nature. Most of us know that feeling – the moment when we are called to do what we said we would do, and we suddenly fear we’re not ready. Our stomach clenches, our knees shake, we feel a chill. Sometimes we overcome our doubt and march ahead. At other times, we back off, look for an escape, make excuses, or find someone to blame for setting an impossible task.

How do we cope with fear and anxiety, the sense of falling apart in the face of enormous challenges? The end of the parsha contains an answer symbolically, in the mitzvah of tzitzit, which we also recite daily as the third paragraph of theShema. The tzitzit are four strands, folded and tied in a very specific way. If you have ever tied tzitzit, you know it takes patience and attention, but the strands then form a very strong bond. The tzitzit themselves proclaim: when you feel your life is disintegrating under the challenges you face, you can tie it back together. The mitzvah is to look, to see into reality rather than feed off our fears; to remember, calling to mind all the service we do for G-d; and to be mindful also of our ultimate purpose, to be holy to your G-d.

This essay is in honor of the bar mitzvah parsha of our son Yaakov Asher, born 21 Sivan.

Leave a Reply