Shabbat Shelakh-L’kha: Why So Negative?

The parashat hashavua for this week is Shelakh-L’kha. It chronicles a significant debacle in the lives of our ancestors, the Generation of the Wilderness: it is during the events described in this parashah that they doom themselves to remaining the wanderers they’ve become. 

One year and some months after the Exodus from Egypt, with our new understanding of the divine and a new system for connecting with it constructed and up and running, we traveled across the Sinai wilderness (which is not that big) and arrived at the borders of the land that according to our people’s narrative was promised by G-d to our ancestors as their descendants’ home. 

And then the troubles began. While the rest of us waited, excited to be nearly there, at the border of the land, Moshe sent a representative from each tribe to scout it out. They returned with grapes so abundant and giant that they had to be carried between two. Just as the people were beginning to rejoice, the scouts added, 

“the land does flow with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. However,the people that dwell in the land are fierce, and the cities are fortified, and very great; and we also saw giants there. The people of Amalek live in the South; the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the mountains; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and along by the side of the Jordan.’ (Numbers 13.27-29)

Upon hearing this, our ancestors panicked. After weeping and moaning all night, in the morning they determined, “Let us appoint a leader, and return to Egypt.” (Numbers 14.40).

It was at this point that G-d and Moshe realized a great truth: some people can’t be freed from their negativity. Worse, they will follow it even when it is only one of the possible perspectives. 

It was the negativity of the Generation of the Wilderness that doomed them. G-d saw that they could not trust, and therefore could not possibly survive as responsible agents in a new, free society that would depend upon patience, kindness, and the ability to assume the best of people. They were not ready to live as one people, committed to each other no matter what, in covenant with each other and with G-d.

In the mystical teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman haLevi Epstein, known as the Maor vaShemesh after the title of his most influential book, we are invited to go deeper into this insight. In his commentary on this parashah, he writes that 

“before the divine Presence was revealed to human beings, it was understandable that G-d had to be very patient with humanity, since mistakes were easy to make. But after the revelation of the divine Presence had been revealed, as indeed was the case with the Wilderness Generation, you would think that G-d would not be so patient with evil doers. And so this story comes to teach us that also, within revelation, there is patience and compassion.”  (Maor VaShemesh, Shelakh, 2:226)

It is said that our sins separate us from G-d. Certainly that is true of our experience of the divine Presence, which according to Jewish tradition is felt in our kehillah kedoshah, our holy community. If the divine Presence is known through patience, when we lose it, we lose the sense of the Presence as well.

We push our wholeness away every day; we pull back from the Presence when we distance ourselves from each other. Even though it has been revealed to us and we know better, we still commit lashon hara’ and listen to it; even when we have felt the joy of supportive community, we undermine ours with unkind words. 

Yes, it is good to have the teaching that there is always another chance to improve our behavior, and that we will not always be bereft of the sense of a holy presence in our lives because of the evil we do. But still, why so negative? why choose to remain in the wilderness, when it is within our ability to get over ourselves, and be in peace, and wholeness, with each other?

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