Do the Right Thing

Posted on June 24, 2022 by Jay Lavroff


This week’s parsha, from the Book of Numbers, Chapter 13 verse 1 to Chapter 15 verse 41, is Shelach Lecha, meaning “send for yourself.” The portion includes the well-known story of the “spies” or “scouts” who are sent to reconnoiter in the land of Canaan.

In the first line of the portion, God authorizes the scouting of Canaan. The mission is not God’s idea, but that of Moses, as recounted in Chapter 1 of Deuteronomy. Hence the title, “send for yourself.” God approves the plan and directs that each scout be a chieftain representing one of the twelve ancestral tribes, and so the scouts were twelve in number. Among the twelve were Caleb and Joshua.

Moses tells the scouts to observe the condition of the land, the people living there, the flora and fauna; basically the prospects for making this a permanent home. After 40 days, the scouts return and report to Moses, Aaron and the entire Israelite community as to what they saw. The report by the majority of the scouting party is not good. While the land is, as promised, flowing with milk and honey, it is inhabited by powerful people living in fortified dwellings, who cannot be overcome and displaced. Caleb speaks in opposition, saying that the Israelites can surely prevail. But Caleb is shouted down, and the negativism of the other scouts immediately sends the rest of the people into a panic; so much so that they bemoan ever having left Egypt, only to die in the wilderness. Such lamentations are reminiscent of those uttered at other times when we were confronted with adversity, such as just prior to the parting of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army approaching, and when the golden calf was forged while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments.

Joshua, the other dissenting scout, then speaks up, saying that God, if pleased with God’s people, will bring them into the land, and therefore no one should rebel against God. As a reward for his courage in addressing the agitated masses, Joshua is threatened with stoning.

God, of course, is extremely upset with this lack of faith. God threatens to disown the Israelites, but Moses successfully pleads for mercy. God relents, with words familiar to us from the Yom Kippur liturgy: “I pardon, as you have asked.” However, the clemency is not without long term consequences, as God tells Moses in the very next sentence that because of their lack of faith and resulting transgressions, no adult among those liberated from Egypt will be allowed to enter the promised land. Instead, the people will be suffered to wander for a total of 40 years–one year for each day of the scouting mission–and every one of them will die in the wilderness, with two notable exceptions: Caleb and Joshua. In this way, the entire generation of doubters will perish, and the promised land will be inhabited by none of them. The lack of faith exhibited by the majority of the community, and the courage of a tiny minority, changed the course of history for our people.

This turn of events was based largely on subjective interpretation. After all, hadn’t all 12 scouts seen the same things? Even the 10 who said that the land could never be taken spoke of its abundant goodness. But the physical might of the inhabitants gave them pause. Was it a lack of faith? Or perhaps something more simple and basic, like primal fear? Benjamin Disraeli, the former British Prime Minister, once said that “fear makes us feel our humanity.” Could it be that, being human, the ten scouts had a genuine concern about their ability to live up to God’s promise?

Maybe so. But God promised the land to the Israelites, and God had delivered time and again, even when things seemed bleakest. The plagues on Egypt. Manna in the desert. Water from the rock. So how could the people have continued to doubt God’s word and God’s love? It seems that the real failing of the people was not their humanity, but their willingness to jump to conclusions and assume the worst without first considering the context of past experience and future opportunity.

Living an upright life requires faith; faith in God, faith in our leaders, faith in ourselves. It requires confidence that we are doing the right thing. It does not require perfection, and we must recognize that to err is human. But we cannot allow fear to paralyze us into never taking action, because once we do, we will lose our faith and end up wandering aimlessly. So when it comes time to make important decisions, particularly those when we must choose between what is right and what is easy or convenient, we must, with faith in our ability, act appropriately. Like Caleb and Joshua, we need to have the courage to speak, even in the face of significant opposition. We should ask questions and voice concern when confronted with harsh circumstances. A positive outlook driven by our faith will enable us to successfully meet the challenges placed before us.

May we always be a community of Calebs and Joshuas, and may our faith continue to take us from strength to strength.

Shabbat Shalom.

Jay Lavroff, Guest Darshan