The Israelites start whining that they want to go back to Egypt only a few days after they leave Mount Sinai in last week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha.1
Then the riffraff who were among them felt a craving and they wept again, and the Israelites also wept, and said: “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt at no charge, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. And now our throats are dry. There is nothing but the manna before our eyes! (Numbers 11:4-6)
In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”), they camp at Kadesh-Barnea on the border between the Wilderness of Paran and Canaan. Moses sends twelve men to scout out the land God promised them, and they return after forty days with mixed reviews. All twelve scouts agree that Canaan is indeed a land “flowing with milk and honey”, and they bring back samples of the gigantic fruit. But only two of the scouts, Caleb and Joshua, are in favor of continuing with God’s plan to capture the country.
Caleb hushed the people toward Moses, and he said: “We must certainly go up and we must certainly take possession of it, because we are certainly able to do it! But the men who had gone up with him said: We will not be able to go up against those people, because they are stronger mimenu.” (Numbers 13:30-31)
mimenu (מִמֶּנּוּ) = than us; than him/it (i.e. God).
Do the ten frightened scouts mean that the people already living in Canaan are stronger than the Israelites, or stronger than their God? Either way, the scouts go among the Israelites and exaggerate.
“And there we saw the giants, the Anakites from the giants, and we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we were in their eyes!” (Numbers 13:33)
The Israelites cry in despair all night.
And they said, each man to his brother, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!” (Numbers/Bemidbar 14:4)
Once again they think they would be better off in Egypt, the land where they were enslaved and the pharaoh tried to kill all their newborn sons.
Both Moses and God lose their tempers; after all, God rescued them from Egypt using Moses as a prophet, and God has fed them manna the whole trip.
Near the end of the Torah portion Shelach-Lekha, God decrees that the people must not enter Canaan until 40 years have passed since their exodus from Egypt. By that time, the generation of slaves will have died in the wilderness. Then only Caleb, Joshua, and the Israelites who are currently under age 20 will cross the border and get a share of the land.
Is the 40-year delay a terrible punishment? Or an act of mercy?
Click on this link to read my 2014 blog post answering this question: Shelach-Lekha: Courage and Kindness.
And may we all remember not to make judgments about who is strong and who is weak, who is actually cowardly and who merely resists change.
- See my post Beha-alotkha: Cloud over Paran.