Shelach: Why Would We Yearn For A Place We Hated?

Were the Children of Israel thickheaded, ungrateful or something else?

It seems unimaginable that a liberated people would yearn for the land that enlsaved them… and it happens all the time.

Table for Five: Shelach

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

All the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the entire congregation said, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert. Why does the Lord bring us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and children will be as spoils. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?”

Num. 14:2-3

Bracha Goetz, Author of 39 spiritual children’s books

Ten princes from the twelve tribes who were sent to scout out the land of Israel reported back to the people that those dwelling in the land were too powerful to overtake militarily. And what they said made sense to us.

Only two of the twelve princes argued that no matter how powerful the inhabitants appeared to be, with the Almighty’s help we could surely be able to overcome their armies and settle in the land of Israel which God had destined for us to inhabit.

It may seem preposterous to us that after all the open miracles that the Jewish people had witnessed, they would doubt that the Almighty would continue to help them. How could they complain and suggest going back to Egypt?

Our Torah is uniquely amazing because it doesn’t shy away from highlighting big mistakes that our great ancestors made – when there is a major lesson for us to learn from them.

Every moment of our lives is full of miracles, including countless blatantly open ones. We have been lifted up again and again, repeatedly freed to grow beyond our perceived limitations. And yet when we are faced with putting in some extra effort, we still often consider returning to the comfort of enslavement, rather than struggling to move forward to the far greater pleasure destined for us.

It is hard to remember, even from one miraculous moment to the next, that an infinitely powerful Source is always behind our best efforts – so anything’s possible!

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Am

Before there was the boy who cried wolf, there were Israelites who cried hunger, amidst abundant food. Who cried oppression, even though they had just fled it. Why would God continue to listen to such false alarms?

That begs the question of why narratives so unsympathetic to the Israelites and their relationship with God get spotlit within our sacred text. One answer of the faithful is, “Because that’s how it happened.” But we can be more imaginative; not every datum of the Israelites’ experience is recorded. So why their rebellions? Why their stupendous lack of gratitude, and perspective? Why their whining? How does reading through those verses build national and spiritual character?

Rabbi Simha Bunem of Psysche, riffing off of a Talmudic text saying that once the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer were closed, whereas the gates of tears remained open, wonders why there are gates of tears at all? Ought tears not just flow freely? He says, harshly critiquing the Israelites from our verses, that those gates are there to keep out the tears of fools who cry for no reason. For relationship to endure, for emotions to make sense with respect to reality, unfounded gripes and senseless weeping must be blocked, or redirected. Otherwise, the one receiving those tears, whether friend or God, will start to ignore them. And then where will you be when support is most needed? Note and confront the bad, yes. But bless the good, too. Or be prepared to be tuned out.

Lt. (res) Yoni Troy, Israel Defense Force

I write this at 3:12 am Friday, May 21st 2021 on the Gaza border. I was called to reserves for the first time after finishing my Army service in February. An hour ago, Israel and Hamas reached a cease-fire agreement after 11 days of Operation Guardian of the Walls.

After my first major military operation, I feel nowhere close to the ten spies’ despair. From our military capabilities to our intense unity, Israel impressed me tremendously.

From enlisted soldiers to reservists, from family men who work in factories to Tel-Aviv hipsters with piercings and tattoos, we came together with a common goal – to protect our country and bring quiet to the region.

Every day, we received donations from Jews worldwide with beautiful notes strengthening us and wishing us well. Thanks to them, we had as much as we needed, be it underwear and socks or Shavuot cheesecake.

I feel proud to belong to a generation of Jews with a homeland so strong, that even when one of its borders is burning, we don’t fear for our existence: a country powerful enough to pummel our enemies’ infrastructure while minimizing casualties — for us and Palestinian civilians.

Whenever problems arise, we can hear the Spies’ ten ugly voices claiming there is no hope, that life once was better, and that we are doomed.

I write, hoping that we have done enough to ensure quiet from Gaza for years to come, believing, as did Joshua and Caleb, that our future will be brighter.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, Associate Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, AJU

Moses sends spies to scout the land. Forty days later they return with frightening reports. On a sleepless night, the people cry out in fear and sadness.

After years of slavery and oppression shouldn’t the Israelites be celebrating freedom? Why are they not marching towards the Promised Land with wonder and jubilation? Instead, weighted by fear, they complain, expressing a desire to return to the land of oppression and spiraling back to slave mentality where humiliation is preferred over self-determination. In the face of adversity, they seek comfort in the known, even if it translates to degradation.

In Egypt, decisions were made for them. They knew the rules and how to live them. They forget that the meager slave rations are provided only to ensure continued servitude, remembering only that they were provided that which they now fear they will lack. Incapable of holding hope in themselves, in Moses, or in God, the people didn’t (yet) understand that hope requires faith. Without it, tears give way to despair resulting in a fantasy that oppression is better than freedom and that death is better than life.

Thankfully, most of us will not experience true slavery. Yet, we know the impulse towards fear that upends our journey towards hope and possibility. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l reminds us of the anecdote: “The Jewish task is not to fear the real world but to enter and transform it, healing some of its wounds and bringing to places often shrouded in darkness fragments of Divine light.”

Michael Berenbaum, Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Sigi Ziering Instittute, American Jewish University

Every person raised in Western culture knows the words Pharaoh and Egypt, Moses, crossing the Sea and the Promised Land. Few choose to recall the journey through the desert, but the Torah recounts it detail by detail, stop by stop. It took courage to leave Egypt.

The Israelites knew fear at the Sea. Pharaoh and his mighty warriors were on one side and the Sea on the other. It took less courage to cross the Sea as the alternative was to be slaughtered by the Egyptians. Yet the journey through the dessert was not for the fainthearted. Only two men, Caleb and Joshua, made it from Egypt to Canaan. The rest, including Miriam, Aaron and even Moses could not.

Parashat Shelach and next week’s Korach, are about aspirations, self-image, and achievements. The ten spies perceive themselves as grasshoppers, and the land’s inhabitants as giants. “We can’t do it,” they despair.

Korach proclaims: “The entire people are holy and God dwells among them.” The Torah admonishes us to become holy; only then God will dwell among us.

What was the message of Caleb and Joshua? “We will surely go up and take hold of it for we will surely prevail over it.” We are their descendants.

But let us have some sympathy for the Israelites who yearned for the difficult world they knew and not for the daily struggle to reach an unknown but promised destination. Though many of us would not like to admit it, we are their descendants as well.

With thanks to Bracha Goetz, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Lt. (res) Yoni Troy, Rabbi Cheryl Peretz and Michael Berenbaum

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Read more at the Jewish Journal.

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