Shelach-Lekha: Courage and Kindness

June 11, 2014 at 8:37 pm | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | 1 Comment
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The Israelites march to the southern border of Canaan in this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”). Then Moses sends twelve men to scout out the land God promised them. The scouts return after forty days, carrying extra-large grapes, pomegranates, and figs.  Ten of the scouts report to Moses and the whole assembly of Israel, saying:

We came into the land where you sent us, and indeed it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. But it is all for nothing, for the dwellers in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very big, and also we saw the offspring of the Anak there. (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:27-28)

They list other hostile peoples living in the land of Canaan, reinforcing their hint that it does not matter how fertile the land is, since the Israelites have no hope of conquering its inhabitants.  Then one scout, Caleb, objects.

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, than it.

In the Talmud (Sotah 35a), Rabbi Hanina bar Papa interprets mimenu as meaning “than Him”, than God—“as if even the master of the house cannot remove his furniture from it!”  Other commentators interpret mimenu as “than us”, and conclude that the ten scouts did not believe God would simply remove the inhabitants from the land before the Israelites walked in. Instead, they assumed they would have to fight for every farm and city, and they despaired.

Whether the scouts give up on God or give up on the people, their next move is to exaggerate the dangers of Canaan, emphasizing that …all the people that we saw inside it were men of unusual size. (Numbers 13:32)

The Israelites despair along with the ten scouts, and sob all night.

And all the Children of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them: If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this wilderness! If only we had died! Why is God bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little children will become booty. Is it not better for us to turn back toward Egypt? (Numbers 14:2-3)

If they actually returned to Egypt, they would be punished as runaway slaves and their wives and children would be treated just like booty.  But the men do not think of this, and they decide to pick a new leader and head back. Moses and Aaron fall on their faces—but this time no divine inspiration comes. (See my earlier post, Korach: Falling on Your Face.) The crowd stops only because the two dissenting scouts, Caleb and Joshua, rip their clothing—an action that is normally performed as a sign of mourning. Now that they have the Israelites’ attention, they explain why the people should go up into Canaan:

The land that we passed through to scout out, it is very, very good land. If God favors us, then [God] will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. However, do not rebel against God! And do not be afraid of the people of the land, for they are our food, and the shade of protection has left them. God is with us; do not be afraid of them! (Numbers 14:7-9)

The people are not convinced.  They are about to stone Caleb and Joshua, when the glory of God appears at the Tent of Meeting and stops them. I suspect the message that they are supposed to trust God makes them so uncomfortable they cannot bear to think about it, so they want to kill the messengers instead.

Moses persuades God to let go of anger and forgive the people, according to the greatness of your kindness (Numbers 14:19). But God swears that nobody who rebelled or ignored God will see the promised land. Only Caleb, Joshua, and the Israelites who are currently under age 20 will enter Canaan and get a share of the land. Everyone else will die in the wilderness—gradually, over a period of 40 years.

It sounds like a spiteful punishment; God gives them what they said they wanted, death in the wilderness.  But I believe this apparent punishment is actually a great kindness.  The adults among the Children of Israel mustered the courage to leave Egypt in the first place, and to face an unknown future following the mysterious and obviously dangerous God who inflicted the ten plagues on Egypt. But someone who can act with great courage in desperate situations, such as worsening slavery, does not necessarily have the willpower to take risks when life is pretty good.

At the time the Israelites refuse to enter Canaan, they are camped in the oasis of Kadeish-Barnea, where there is enough vegetation for them and their livestock to live indefinitely, even without manna. They are not required to do any unusual labor, only to follow a set of reasonable laws and easy rituals. Why not just stay there for the rest of their lives?

The answer is that God is urging them to do something further. For Caleb and Joshua, and for Moses and his brother and sister, this urging is stronger than natural inertia and fear of the unknown.  But for others, the need for security and comfort is stronger.

So God kindly lets the Israelites stay at the oasis in the wilderness, living out their lives until each one dies at age 60. God recognizes that it is too much for most of the people to summon the willpower for another big act of courage.

Each of us today faces similar turning points in our lives. Sometimes we find ourselves trapped in a desperate situation, and it still takes a lot of inner strength to escape to a new life, but finally we do it. Other times life is pretty good, but something inside keeps urging us to make a change, to step out and take a risk that frightens us. Do we do it?

Whether we pick up the challenge or not depends on how fragile or strong our souls are. In this week’s Torah portion, God says:

But my servant Caleb, because there is a different ruach with him, and he followed me fully, I shall bring him into the land… (Numbers 14:24)

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind, spirit, mood, state of mind, driving impulse, motivation, temperament.

Perhaps when we hesitate between sticking with a pretty good life and taking a chance on the inner urge for change, all we can do is pray for wisdom and the right ruach.

May God, and life, be kind both to those who do not have the ruach to change, and to those who do.

Shelach-Lekha: Too Late

May 30, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | 4 Comments

The Israelites are on the verge of entering Canaan at the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”). They are in Kadesh-Barnea, an oasis in the wilderness of Paran that is close to a hilly ridge on the border of Canaan. The tribes are camped in marching formation, and all the men over 20, who will fight any upcoming battles, have been counted. The portable sanctuary (mishkan) is completed, and God’s cloud hovers over the inner sanctum, where the ark of the covenant rests.

The only problem is that the people keep complaining, and God keeps dealing with it by killing the worst complainers. Nevertheless, God has led the survivors all the way to the border of Canaan. This week’s portion begins with God giving Moses permission to send scouts for himself into Canaan.

Scouts with grapes from Canaan

Scouts with grapes from Canaan

Sending in scouts is standard military procedure before a conquest. When Moses’s twelve scouts return, they all agree that Canaan is good land, full of milk, honey, and fruit. (They bring back a gigantic bunch of grapes as evidence.) Two of them, Caleb and Joshua, predict that the Israelites will go up and conquer the land, with God’s help. But the other ten scouts say that the inhabitants of Canaan are giants, too strong for the Israelites to conquer. Then the “entire assembly” of Israel wails:

If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why is God bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will be taken captive. Isn’t it better for us to return to Egypt? Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt! (Numbers/Bemidbar 14:3-4)

God (according to this story) is infuriated by the people’s rejection, and assumes that they doubt God has the power to make their conquest successful.

I think that what the Israelites actually doubt is God’s commitment to them. And they have a point. Once again, Moses has to persuade God not to simply annihilate everybody on the spot. God compromises by decreeing that the Israelites must wander in the wilderness for another 40 years, until everyone over 20 has died—except for Caleb and Joshua, who in reward for their faithfulness will live long enough to enter Canaan. God sensibly decides to presume that those under 20 are innocent, so they can enter the land as adults at the end of the 40 years.

Ironically, God is giving the Israelites what they said they wanted, when they despaired of conquering Canaan and wailed: If only we had died in this wilderness!  But when Moses gives them the news, they are not pleased.

Moses spoke these words to all the children of Israel, and the people cursed themselves very much. They got up early in the morning and they went up to the top of the hill, saying: Here we are! And we will go up to the place that God said, because we were wrong! (Numbers/Bemidbar 14:39-40)

But Moses said: Why are you going beyond the word of God? That will not succeed! Do not go up, because God is not in your midst, and you will be defeated in the face of your enemies. For the Amalekite and the Canaanite are there in front of you, and you will fall by the sword; since you turned away from following God, then God will not be with you.  (Numbers 14:41-43)

Yet they stormed up to the top of the hill. But the ark of the covenant of God, and Moses, did not budge from the middle of the camp. Then the Amalekite and the Canaanite, who were staying on that hill, came south and beat and battered them until the chormah. (Numbers 14:44-45)

chormah (חָרְמָה) = a possible place-name; the verb charam (חָרַם)= destroy utterly, dedicate to utter destruction for the sake of God + the suffix ah = toward

I feel sorry for the men who admit they were wrong, and try to correct their mistake, only to be utterly destroyed for the sake of God. I am also impressed by their sheer stupidity. How can they fail to see that they will fail?

These men know they did something wrong, or God would not have sentenced them to die in the wilderness.  The men assume their misdeed was simply refusing to climb the ridge into the land of Canaan. It does not occur to them that a more serious misdeed was refusing to obey God, or that the worst of all was deciding to abandon God and return to Egypt.

Moses points out that rushing up the ridge without God’s permission will never succeed, because they turned away from following God. But the men do not listen to Moses, even though he has spoken for God ever since he and God freed them from slavery in Egypt. Neither do they do not attach any meaning to the fact that Moses and the ark remain in the camp with the women and children (and, presumably, the subset of men who did not try to storm the ridge). Ignoring all evidence, the men who rush up the ridge actually believe that by doing what God ordered in the first place, they can change God’s mind and win a reprieve from being sentenced to die in the wilderness.

They are only human. I bet all human beings, at some point in their lives, realize that they have made a terrible mistake, and try to fix it by turning back the clock and doing it right this time. The problem is that we cannot turn back time. There are no second chances.

Once the Israelite men reject God and God’s plan for entering Canaan, they cannot change themselves back into innocent followers of God. Saying we were wrong is a good beginning of an apology, although they also need to acknowledge their rejection of God, and repent. That is the best they could do. Then they would merit whatever fate God deemed appropriate for people who had been unfaithful, but now were reforming. They could not have started conquering Canaan as if nothing had happened, but perhaps God would have softened their sentence.

Similarly, someone who has lied or cheated on a spouse cannot return to the original situation and do it over again, getting it right this time. Once you have betrayed someone’s trust, the best you can do is to apologize and repent. And even if the betrayed spouse forgives the betrayer, the marriage will not be the same. The same principle applies to a betrayal between friends, or between a parent and child.

There are no second chances; the story of the men who rush up the hill after it is too late only illustrates how our world works. Nevertheless, we can do better than that band of Israelites, if we are willing to study our own mistakes and misdeeds. With humility and deep reflection, we can change our approach to life, and make better choices when we encounter challenges in the future.

May we receive the strength to do this had inner work. May we receive the grace to accept where we are now, even if we wish we had never left Egypt. And may we receive the insight to make better and better choices.

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