Parshat Shelach

Torah Reading for Week of June 12-18, 2011

“Lost in Desert Ways”
By Rabbi Janet Madden, ‘11

The logo of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism—which depicts two men carrying a pole on which is slung a cluster of gigantic grapes—is taken from the story of the spies in Parshat Shelach.  And what a conflicted image this symbol communicates.

Yes, the Land that the Holy One has promised to B’nei Israel is indeed bursting with sweetness and sustenance, and those sent to scout the Land carry back evidence of its fecundity. But ten of the twelve scouts sent out by Moses to report on the conditions of the Land are overwhelmed by the magnitude of what must be done if the Israelites are to avail themselves of what G-d has promised. Based on the majority’s assessment that  “The Land we explored devours those living in it… We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same [to those dwelling in the Land],” the people are stirred to a panicked rejection of the future that G-d offers them.  In consequence, they will remain where they have chosen to be–lost in the desert.

Many commentators have written of the sin of the spies as the failure of faith in the Divine promise. But the spies also fail to believe in themselves—an equal, and equally fundamental, failure. Humility is a virtue when it is a sincere and accurate assessment; self-deprecation becomes problematic when it is a shield for a lack of willingness to engage in self-actualization.

The great majority of the spies are pre-disposed to find reasons why the Israelites cannot succeed, and so they literally re-vision the possible and transform it into the impossible. Instead of seeing walled cities as the sign of their inhabitants’ fears of being conquered, the spies see unbreachable fortresses. Their fears magnify until they can see only negatives, only obstacles, and, ultimately, only despair: in imagining themselves small and helpless, they ascribe their vision to others, and ultimately lose their ability to see reality.

In his 1864 “A Soliloquy of One of the Spies Left in the Wilderness,” the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins provides his poetic imagining of a left-behind spy as the ultimate example of self-delusion and self-destruction. Bitterly refusing to accept life-giving water, the man refuses everything that G-d offers, even to absurdly characterizing Egypt as “the valley of our pleasance,” choosing death over life. Hopkins’ spy, “lost in [his] desert ways,” warns us of our human propensity to self-defeat, of the dangers inherent in confusing our fears with reality, of our stubborn refusal to open our eyes to the Divine promise that life offers.

Sent out into our lives to scout the possibilities and challenges that life offers, it is all too easy to become lost in a desiccated and bitter wilderness of self-devouring self-defeat. But, fortified by our connections to the Holy One and the rich traditions that Judaism offers us, we have a much greater chance of seeing clearly, of choosing to look for and to that which is possible, of engaging with a life-journey that guides us not to the ways of the desert but to the riches of sweetness and sustenance.

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