Shelach Lecha: On fearing to enter the Promised Land

Shelach Lecha

Numbers 13:1-15:41

Joshua 2:1-24

The well-known biblical account of the 12 spies sent to scout out the land of Canaan is featured in Shelach Lecha, this week's Torah portion. The spies' bleak report is important because it teaches much about perspective, most notably our perceptions of ourselves and others and how we think others perceive us.

The portion teaches us how our perceptions color our outlook on life and our understanding of the world. Returning from scouting out the land, they brought back a bunch of grapes so huge that it took two men to carry it, slung over a pole.

"We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit," they said. Then they added: "However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large" (Numbers 13:27-28).

Only Caleb and Joshua brought an optimistic report, saying: "Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it" (Numbers 13:30).

But the 10 pessimists among the 12 spies countered the favorable comments with these words:

"We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we…The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them" (Numbers 13:31-33).

Whether or not the spies were really as relatively small as grasshoppers and whether or not the Canaanites were actually huge is unimportant because the Israelites believed the ominous report. No one stopped to ask, "How realistic is that account?" Instead, they broke into loud wailing and expressed their fears as well as their regrets at having left Egypt. They demanded to be returned to the stable but demeaning life of slavery:

"If only we had died in the land of Egypt," they shouted at the spies, "or if only we might die in this wilderness! Why is the Lord taking us to that land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!" And they said to one another, "Let us head back for Egypt" (Numbers 14:1).

It seems as if at the slightest provocation the Israelites would test Moses' leadership skills. Just prior to this incident, the people demanded that they be returned to Israel because the food there was superior to their daily diet of manna of which they had tired:

"If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all. Nothing but this manna to look to!" (Numbers 11:4-6).

In three weeks, when we read the Torah portion Balak, a very different situation is reported. Balak, King of Moab, a petty local ruler, was so fearful of the same Israelites coming out of Egypt. He portrayed them as being so numerous that "their number hides the earth from view" (Numbers 22:11).

To neutralize the Israelites' might, Balak hired Baalam to curse them.

The contrast between this Balak story and that of the account of the 12 spies is stunning. The Israelites were frightened of others at the same time that others were frightened of them! We will never know which was the accurate perception because the Israelites did not enter the Promised Land at that moment and were doomed to years of wandering in the desert.

Thus by extension, our own perception of ourselves is fraught with difficulty because we tend to believe what we want to believe, even if that belief is far from the truth.

The spies were afraid to enter the Promised Land because they saw themselves as tiny in comparison to the fearsome natives. This message challenges us to think about ourselves and the obstacles we face. Whether we consciously or unconsciously view ourselves through the lens of how we think others see us, we can be as paralyzed as the Israelites who were afraid to enter the Promised Land.

If we are fearful of going forward, as were the majority of the spies, then we too will delay our entrance into our own promised lands.