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Shelah Lekha 5778

June 7, 2018

A D’var Torah for Shelah Lekha
by Cantor Sandy Horowitz ’14

In the story of the twelve spies who scout out the land of Canaan in Parashat Shelah Lekha we experience several different leadership styles — from the spies, Joshua and Caleb, Moses and God.

God instructs Moses to send representatives from each of the twelve tribes, “everyone a leader among them”, to spy on Canaan, the land which God has promised to the Israelites.   After forty days they return and ten of these tribal leaders produce an “evil report” with regard to the overwhelming size and strength of the Canaanite people.  An eleventh, Caleb, expresses disagreement and suggests going right away to possess the land (Numbers 13:30).  But his is a lone voice, as the ten continue their litany of fear and exaggeration.

In response the people “lifted up their voice and cried” (Numbers 14:1). They speak out against Moses, Aaron and God, and declare their intention to return to Egypt.  The ten spies now remain silent.

As for Moses and Aaron, they fall on their faces, presumably in despair over this latest rebellion. God has not yet spoken. In this moment no one is taking command of the situation.

It is only after the collapse of Moses and Aaron that Caleb, this time joined by the twelfth spy Joshua, re-states his plea that Canaan is a good land, and that if God finds favor in the Israelites, God will make sure to provide the land to them. Together, Caleb and Joshua urge the people not to speak out against God. (14:6-9).

One might wonder why Joshua, who is clearly in agreement with Caleb, did not join Caleb right away in speaking out against the other spies?  One explanation is provided by Rav Tamir Granot in his article “Parashat Shelach – The Differences Between Kalev and Yehoshua in the Story of the Spies”.  He argues that because Joshua was the chosen successor to Moses, and therefore in a role similar to that of student and teacher, it was not his place to speak up ahead of Moses. As long as Moses is the leader of the Israelite people, Joshua must maintain a secondary role. To speak out of turn would be presumptuous.  It is only when Moses and Aaron collapse in a clear demonstration of the severity of the situation, that Joshua decides to speak out on their behalf. One might also surmise that at this point in the biblical narrative Joshua is still developing into the leader he is destined to become.

Finally we hear from God, who is predictably angry and threatens to annihilate the people.  Not for the first time, the God who freed the Israelites from slavery, brought them out of Egypt and made them God’s people, is furious at their expressed desire to return to Egypt.  God declares to Moses, “How long will this people provoke Me? How long will it be before they believe Me, for all the signs I have shown?” (Numbers 14:11).

Also not for the first time, Moses must try to convince God not to destroy the Israelite people.  His initial approach is pragmatic as he argues, what will the Egyptians think when they see that You failed in Your promise to bring the people to their land?

Moses doesn’t stop there. Having appealed to the Divine Ego, Moses then appeals to the Divine Heart, using God’s own words – words God had spoken to him atop Mount Sinai when writing the second set of the commandments, words which have become known as the 13 Attributes of Mercy:

“Adonai, Adonai, benevolent One, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth, preserving lovingkindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin; yet Who does not completely clear [of sin] but visits the iniquity of parents on children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generations.”  (Exodus 34:6-7)

Now, Moses speaks a somewhat abbreviated version of these same words back to God. It is a powerful moment, and God replies with salahti, “I will forgive [them]” (Numbers 14:20). It is a powerful moment, for though God will condemn them to 40 years of wandering before they reach the promised land, God will remain with them. 

Perhaps the mark of a true leader lies not only in one’s initial response, but also in how the leader follows up when faced with challenging events. For when we reflect on a situation following our initial impulse, we have the opportunity to be our best and truest selves.  We don’t know why the ten spies remained silent after their initial provocative report, and they certainly seemed to have abandoned their roles as leaders.  On the other hand Caleb demonstrates the value of standing our ground; we may seek to find our voice as a leader like Joshua; we may need to dust off our despair and resume our designated role like Moses.  And sometimes we need to forgive, just as God once again chose to forgive the Israelites.
Sandy Horowitz is the Cantor/Educator of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ. She received ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in 2014.