Fear can be immobilizing, blinding us to the truth


Numbers 13:1-15:41

Joshua 2:1-24

In recent days I have found myself thinking a lot about truth-telling. Naturally, I was intrigued when I found that the narrative of this week's parashah revolves around a lie.

As the Israelites prepare to enter the Land of Israel, God commands that scouts, or spies, be sent into the land first, to bring back a description to the people. One only wonders what God expected to happen: Was the goal to generate excitement and confidence in the conquest to come? Was this a test of the people's faith? Did God know all along that the spies would fail and bring punishment on the whole people, so that the generation of slaves would die in the desert, and a new generation would enter the land?

The spies are sent with a specific set of questions to answer about the nature of the land and its people. On their return, the drama unfolds in five stages:

1.The spies bring back a sample of the fruit of the land, as Moses had directed them. They also provide an enthusiastic report about the nature of the land. "We came to the Land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit" (Numbers 13:26-7).

2.They attach to this glowing description the discouraging information that "the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large…" (13:28-9). This piece of the report, while pessimistic, is nonetheless truthful.

3.Caleb, seeking to erase the demoralizing impact of his colleagues' words, immediately offers words of exhortation: "Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it" (13:30). In short, he urges them, "We can do it," hoping to inspire them that, with God's help, they can, in fact, prevail.

4.In response to Caleb's hopeful words, the 10 spies (excluding Caleb and Joshua), respond again with words of fear, though still grounded in reality. "We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we" (13:31).

5.Only now do the spies resort to lies, as they escalate their campaign of fear, spinning a fantastic tale of terror. "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…we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them" (13:32-3).

A land that devours its inhabitants? An entire population of giants so tall that we looked like grasshoppers by comparison? How could anyone have failed to recognize that this was a piece of nonsense, a hallucination, an illusion born of terror? How is it that the Israelites were unable to discern that this was simply the voice of fear speaking through the spies' report?

Fear can be powerful and contagious. When we are overwhelmed by fear, we cannot see reality clearly. We are not balanced enough even to assess what lies before us, much less choose wisely how to act. In fear, we may leap to defensive, self-protective action that may ultimately hurt us. But in the grips of fear, we cannot see the truth.

Stories of fear feed on themselves. One scary thought leads to another, and another, till terror cascades through the mind. In this state, we cannot see beauty or hope or even truth. We see only one frightening image after another, and before long we may be driven to actions with harmful consequences.

The text refers to the fifth stage of this unfolding narrative as the only point at which the spies tell lies. Until then, they were merely cautious, pessimistic, even faithless. The spies were not bad people. They approached their assignment with seriousness and care, fully intending to bring back a truthful report. Only when fear overtook them were they unable to see the greater truth, that with God's help, they could enter this land.

Like the spies, we may at times be blinded by fear, driven from our ideals and our life's mission when fear immobilizes us. May the sacred story of the spies serve as a reminder to us to stay grounded in truth and in faithfulness.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.