This week’s parashah teaches about the challenge of going forth into uncharted territory. This, of course, is what we face all the time; but many of us fear it, avoid it, and do a bad job of coping with it despite the experience we all have of change in our lives.
High school seniors look at college freshman as giants; a new apprentice or trainee sees the seasoned workers around her in the same way. The new toy may be attractive, but the new reality creates anxiety and fear. So it was for our ancestors when they reached the edge of the Promised Land, as the Torah records this week in parashat Shelakh.
Yes; this week. If only we had made the crossing here, the book of Numbers would end now. But we did not make the crossing. We peered in from a distance,and as a first step, we sent scouts to do reconnaissance. They reported:
And they showed them the fruit of the land. “We came unto the land to which you sent us, and surely it flows with milk and honey, but the people that dwell in the land are fierce, and the cities are fortified, and very great; …. ‘We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.’ And they spread an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.'”(Numbers 13.26-33, excerpted)
We seemed like grasshoppers to ourselves next to those giants; we can’t possibly go in there! Note that the Torah calls it “an evil report” – why? certainly the scouts are only being cautious, and pointing out the possible difficulties on the way. Isn’t it best to be conservative when dealing with the unknown?
The answer given by Torah commentators and interpreters is that it depends on the unknown; and in the final analysis, it depends on your faith. G-d had already assured the people of Israel that they would be able to enter the land, but when the scouts asserted that they could not, the Israelites, moved by their fear of the unknown, chose the fearful option, rather than the faithful one. They were not ready to take a leap of faith and trust G-d; they were not ready to be free people. They still had a slave mentality.
It’s still true that we are sometimes required to step into uncharted territory in our personal lives and in the life of our community. There are really only two choices about how to react to the unknown future into which we must move: either with fear, or with faith. In the case of this parashah, fear bought our ancestors thirty-eight more years of wandering, after which they came to the exact same place and were confronted with the exact same reality. The only thing that had changed in the meantime was them, and their ability, finally, to make that leap of faith.
They might be giants; but so will we be when we act with faith – with love, a willingness to learn, and most of all, to see ourselves as more than grasshoppers.