Sh’lach: Don’t Panic

Sin of the Spies

In Torah portion Sh’lach, Moses sends twelve spies, one from each tribe of Israel, into the land of Caanan. They return forty days later carrying a huge cluster of grapes, a pomegranate and a fig, and describe the Promised Land as lush and bountiful. Caleb, the leader of the tribe of Judah, confidently states that “We can surely go up and take possession of it.” (Num. 13:30) Joshua, from the tribe of Ephraim, agrees. However, the other ten spies are not so optimistic. They declare that the inhabitants of the land are giants and “we are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.” (Num. 13:31) This negative report causes the Israelites to panic. They cry to Moses and Aaron that they will “fall by the sword, our wives and children will be as spoils.” (Num. 14:3) They say to each other, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!” (Num. 14:4)

Even though God brought them out of slavery, provided for them in the wilderness, and promised them the land, they have no faith that He will help them to conquer it. God punishes the Israelites by decreeing that their entry will be delayed forty years, until the entire generation of former slaves dies out. Why are they punished so severely? Isn’t it natural to be afraid of the powerful Canaanites? An answer can be found in the last line of the spies’ report, describing their fearsome foes: “In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.” (Num. 13:33)

The Midrash explains that God would have forgiven the Children of Israel for comparing themselves to insects. Their mistake was projecting their own feelings of insecurity onto others. We humans often feel frightened or vulnerable, and we can’t always control those negative emotions. However, it is important to separate the way we feel from the way we think. Our emotions don’t necessarily reflect reality. The ten pessimistic spies and the panicked people knew that they felt scared, but they had no way to know what the Canaanites felt about them. They made a reckless assumption, and we all know what happens when we assume….

May we all remain calm in stressful times, and allow our heads to rule over our hearts!

Image: 1600 year old mosaic depicting two spies carrying a cluster of grapes (image credit: Jim Haberman)

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