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Parashat Shelah 5780

June 19, 2020

A D’var Torah for Parashat Shelah
By Cantor Sandy Horowitz (’14)

Leaders tend to behave in one of two ways. Some promote fear, often spreading lies which may be based on fears of their own; other leaders promote trust, offering hope for a future envisioned but not yet realized.  Parashat Shelah tells the story of what can happen when leadership is fear-based.

It begins as twelve men are selected by Moses to scout out the promised land. These twelve are all machers in the community, one from each of the twelve tribes, whose names and lineage are listed in the text. Their mission is to gather information about the land and its inhabitants. The Torah reading describes how they find huge clusters of grapes, as well as pomegranates and figs – indications of fertile land and good produce. Then we read, “And they returned from searching the land after forty days” (Num. 13:25). There are no descriptions of encounters between the Israelite scouts and the various peoples of the lands they explored during those forty days.

Yet when they return, ten of the scouts tell the Israelites, “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we – ki hazak hu mimenu…We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so were we in their sight” (Num. 13:31, 33).  How could they tell that the people were stronger than they, and that the Israelites were as grasshoppers in their sight, if there was no interaction with them? There is no mention of having been threatened or attacked, none of the scouts seems to have been harmed or injured. In fact, their report doesn’t describe any encounters at all with the dwellers in the land. The ten scouts who concurred on this report (Joshua and Caleb excepted) seem intent on creating a picture designed to instill fear, so that the Israelites won’t want to enter the land.

Perhaps this is because these ten leaders are themselves too afraid to take the next step on the journey from slavery to freedom; their report, therefore, is fear-based rather than fact-based. They cannot imagine being independent, growing their own crops, having their own farms and cities and rulers. The trauma of their experience as slaves in Egypt is too powerful to overcome. Having lived in a rabbit hole of fear for their entire lives, the prospect of climbing out seems impossible.

The ten are successful with their report: the people cry out against Moses and Aaron, and demand a new leader to take them back to Egypt. Not surprisingly, God is furious and wants to wipe them all out. We saw God start to become unraveled in last week’s Torah reading, when the people complained about not having meat to eat and said they wanted to return to Egypt: God provided them with meat in the form of quail, and then as the complainers went about devouring it, God struck them dead with plague. So perhaps the idea of sending the scouts was God’s way of offering this generation of ex-slaves one last test of faith — which they failed. Fortunately, Moses appeals to God to not destroy all the people, and a different punishment is handed out –- forty more years of wandering in the wilderness, so that no one over the age of twenty will be alive to enter the promised land. The exceptions are Joshua and Caleb, the two scouts who bravely refused to concur with the false report.

The decision to delay is a logical choice on God’s part. Seeing that the people were so easily swayed by the false report of the ten scouts, it was clear that most of the current adult generation is not prepared for the next stage of the journey; the trauma of four hundred years of slavery was too great to overcome in such a short period of time.

The Israelites would eventually get there, as we know. In order for the new generation of Israelites to survive in the promised land, they would need a different kind of leader — someone faithful to God who would understand the power of envisioning a hopeful future. That leader would be Joshua. We don’t know what made Joshua and Caleb different from the others, what got them out of that rabbit hole of centuries-old fear, what made them more capable of looking towards a better future. Surely one aspect was their capacity to maintain faith in a Source of Power greater than themselves.
Cantor Sandy Horowitz (AJR ’14) is an independent cantor and tutor who has served as AJR faculty.