We Can Reach the Promised Land

Posted on June 19, 2020 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck

This week’s Torah portion is a telling tale about how attitude and perception color our reality – how what we see “out there,” so often reflects our inner disposition, our preconceived notions, biases and prejudices.

The Israelites are ready to go up to the Promised Land, to return home to the land of their ancestors after 400 years of slavery in Egypt. They are well organized. They have built the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary with the Ark of the Covenant at its center, and the Levites have assumed their roles to care for it. All systems are go when God instructs Moses to send an advance guard to scout out the land and report back. Twelve men, each a leader from one of the 12 tribes, go forth on this mission, and strikingly, they all agree on the basic facts of what they see. The land is good. It is fertile. Its fruits are ample. It is inhabited by Anakites, people of great size who live in fortified cities. But that is where the consensus ends, and the controversy begins.

Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, declare that the mission is possible, that God is with them, and that it is their destiny to reclaim their heritage. They urge the people to go forth with confidence. The other ten spies paint a very different picture, one of a disaster in the making in a land that devours its settlers. Their account causes the people to panic and lose faith in God, in Moses, and in their mission, resulting in the divine decree that the entire generation will wander the wilderness until they die.

The old saying that “seeing is believing,” proves to be untrue. It seems more the case that “believing is seeing” – that the attitude we bring to a situation is often determinative. This doesn’t mean that wishful thinking ought to replace realism. The Torah does not endorse reckless fantasies. It does, however, promote the kind of faith and optimism that sees the glass as half full. It sees the world that God has made as one of abundance and possibility, and people as capable of doing remarkable things when they set their mind and hearts and hands to make their best effort.

The pessimists among the spies saw themselves as small, like grasshoppers in the eyes of the inhabitants of Canaan, whom they saw as giants. Their perception became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their attitude, their lack of faith in themselves and God, dictated their fate. And their example should be instructive for us in moments of challenge like our current situation.

We are not hapless victims of circumstances, unless we choose to see ourselves that way. We have the power to make important and meaningful choices that can and will determine our path ahead. With thoughtful and determined action we can overcome the coronavirus. We can seize this moment of righteous indignation to bring an end to systemic racism in America.

These are not fantasies grounded in wishful thinking. With thoughtful, sober reflection, clear values, tried and true principles, and leaders of vision to guide us, we can and will overcome. So, let us all be hopeful and faithful, with trust in God for the good that lies in store for us all, and belief in our own ability to shape a future in which all God’s children will live in freedom, sharing in the abundance of the earth in harmony and peace, fulfilling our common destiny to reach the Promised Land.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Arnie Gluck

PS: There is a custom of reading the Emancipation Proclamation on Juneteenth. The transcript can be found here.