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Parashat Sh’lah L’kha

June 16, 2011

In this week’s parashah we read about the spies, twelve tribal leaders selected by Moses for a forty day reconnaissance mission to report on the nature of the Promised Land.

After traversing wilderness and mountainous terrain, the men returned and described a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Num. 13:27). With hyperbole and distortion, ten of the spies also reported how the land devours its inhabitants, the people are exceedingly fierce, and the cities fortified, populated with giants (Num. 13:28, 32-33). This news bulletin evoked intense fear among the Israelites, nearly catalyzing a popular revolt.

In understanding Torah, I search for an inner, psycho-spiritual dimension. This approach is comparable to the allegorical interpretations of Philo, and the Hasidic Masters who tend to psychologize elements and characters in Torah.

The Passover Haggadah reads: Hayav Adam li’rot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza miMitzraim it is incumbent for each person to see themselves as if they themselves have left Egypt. Similarly, what would it mean to suggest we ourselves are the meraglim, the spies who lied to Moses? How might we see this Biblical story as descriptive of an internal process?

Drawn from waters of the depths, Moshe is the visionary who seeks spiritual guidelines for his people. He dispatches spies to discern the unknown future, saying: “go see what kind of country it is, are people strong or weak, good or bad? Are towns open or fortified, soil rich or poor, is it wooded or not?” (Num. 13:18-19).

The role of the spies is to discover the nature of the Promised Land, symbolically, the place of our soul, our higher consciousness. It is a natural, organic process; as spiritual beings we yearn to know our destiny, sense our divine calling.

From a psycho-spiritual point of view, sending spies is not problem. It is hard-wired into our being to look around corners, intuit the unknown, discern whence we are evolving spiritually. The problem is how the spies responded to Moses: deceitfully, fearfully, with exaggeration and lying!

What did they report? “It’s bad news! The country will devour its settlers, there are giants in the land, we look like grasshoppers compared to them, things will turn out really badly. We are screwed!”

Mythically, this response represents parts of ourselves unable to hear our own spiritual yearnings and destiny. As flawed human beings we can be filled with fear and anxiety about the unknown. We have parts of ourselves that don’t always tell the truth. We might see a fleck of imperfection and make it into a catastrophe. “Oh my G!d this country will devour all of us!” “Oh my G!d this person did not return my phone call, email within two hours, they must hate me. I knew I was not capable, talented, good enough, smart enough.”

Instead of seeing the Promised Land of our soul with clarity, we perceive distortions, not in alignment with our inner spiritual selves. We see failure and defeat where there are challenges, rejection when there might be merely hesitation or delay.

What are the giants, Anakim? They represent bogeymen created in our mind. Mind has the capacity to catastrophize, make a mountain out of a mole hill. “There are giants, they are going to eat us alive!”

But if the land is flowing with milk and honey, as Calev and Yehoshua reported, why is it that we imagine the worst possible outcome, and fear being eaten alive by life?

Let’s look at the word for spies, “meraglim“. The root is “rgl,” the same root as the word “hergayl“, habit. The consciousness of the spies, the meragalim, represents habituated mind that cannot see clearly, stuck in old stories and unable to be present to the truth in each moment. The habituated mind cannot see the Promised Land of our soul with clarity. We lose touch with our spiritual nature, we feel insignificant, like grasshoppers.

Num. 14:37 indicates that the deceitful spies died of plague. When we listen to the nagging voice of habituated mind we end up spiritually dead, unconscious, unable to hear our divine calling and destiny.

But fear not! This story is designed as a warning, a wake-up call. Torah wants us to remember the generation of spies, so we will not repeat their mistakes. We are not destined to live a fear-filled, unconscious life of the habituated, deceitful mind.

How do we avoid their mistakes? Notice names of the two spies who told Moses the truth and survived: 1) Calevka-Lev, “as the heart, like the heart,” one who lived in touch with his heart. Living in touch with his own heart, he could hear G!d’s truth and reported truthfully what he saw in the Promised Land; and 2) Yehoshua – “G!d rescues, saves!” Earlier in the Sinai desert story his name was changed by Moses from Hoshea to Yehoshua, adding the Yod of God’s name. He became one who knew God as the one that saves us.

The key to expel the habit-conditioned mind which does not see the truth of things: be in the heart (like Calev), knowing G!d rescues us (like Yehoshua).

So the message of the story of the spies is this: if we remember G!d’s presence and stay in our heart, we avoid the false consciousness of the spies, the habituated mind of the meraglim, and enter into the Promised Land of Higher Consciousness, wherein we live in touch with our own spiritual destiny. It is this that Torah reminds us this week.


Simcha Raphael, Ph.D. is in the Rabbinical Program of AJR. He works as an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Jewish Studies Program of Temple University, and a Rabbinic Intern in the Jewish Hospice Network of Philadelphia. He is author of the book Jewish Views of the Afterlife.