Shabbat Sh’lakh-L’kha: When the Safe Choice is a Dead End

This week in our parashah it all goes wrong, suddenly. Moses sends twelve scouts, each of them a leader of a tribe, to survey the land just ahead, the Land to which G*d promised to lead them. We are literally there already – until the Promised Land abruptly becomes a place to far to reach in one lifetime, it’s really not a long distance. The Israelites were standing on the threshold of the promise geographically, yet they discovered that they were not, spiritually, anywhere close.

What went wrong? The scouts return with two reports. Ten of these leaders of the people tell stories of large, fortified cities guarded by foreign giants; the Israelites seem justified in being shocked, and frightened. They paint a lurid picture of the dangers that lurk so close by. And all the while, two scouts keep on insisting that yes, it did seem scary, but it’s not as if we are unprepared, and, after all, G*d is with us.

Elected leaders of a people who use fear to rally people to their version of reality, while other leaders try to offer a reasonable voice that respects both sides. At its essence, there is no difference between this ancient story and our own day – immigration, gun safety, treatment of minorities among us, all these conversations are held hostage by fear mongering.

Panic ensues. Grumblings over the discomforts of the trail, which started last week, become louder, and the idea that someone threw out last week as an obviously absurd expression of disaffection – “let’s go back to Egypt” has actually become, this week, a plan that people are taking seriously.

No one really believes that so-and-so can become an elected leader, really…..

No one really thinks that the referendum can possibly go that way…

No one would really credit that we were better off before the Affordable Care Act….

Until it happens.

Fear has led them to rebel against the authority they elected to follow out of the hardships of slavery in Egypt. Not only the authority of Moshe and Aharon, but of the G*d they represent as well. Everything had seemed so settled and organized: the Ten Words that become a Covenant, the Mishkan built, the priests ordained and ready to go. But now the seeming stability is a crumbling facade. 

Back to Egypt? can anyone truly believe that this nonsense is the right path forward for our people?

Why do the Israelites give in to their fear? Is it only logical that they opted to believe the majority report? Neuroscience has established that “when the fear system of the brain is active, exploratory activity and risk-taking are turned off.” Even if the only way to survive is to take a risky leap, fear will keep most of us crouched in place. 

In our own lives we face choices that seem risky, of which we are afraid. We may seek a sort of majority report from modern scouts (aka anyone who we think knows more than we do), and if a number of studies align we may be persuaded of a truth. Yet we have come to know that another study will be published next year, or in another generation, or when the technology improves, and we will discover that, perhaps, the opposite is true. 

There are limits to what we can know based on evidence. Sometimes – especially when fear is a factor – the majority is wrong. Unfortunately, it is only after the irrevocable step has been taken that we can clearly see where we went wrong.

The Israelites knew immediately after that they had blown it. And while repentance may heal relationships, it does not repair consequences. The generation of slavery has forever missed its chance to enter the Promised Land by demonstrating that they are too afraid to take the necessary risks. 

What went wrong? The ancient Sages of our tradition found a hint in last week’s verse: “They traveled from the mountain of G*d” (Numbers 10.33). Rabbi Hanina explains: this teaches us that they turned aside from following G*d” (BT Shabbat 116a), and in the Middle Ages the scholar Nakhmanides adds: “they traveled away from Mt Sinai gleefully, like a child who runs away from school, saying, ‘Perhaps G*d will give us more commands [if we stay]!’” (Ramban to Numbers 10.35).

The Israelites gave in to fear because – if we allow anachronism in order to suggest relevance – they were not immersed deeply enough in their Torah learning and in their Jewish practices. Ignorance allows fear to take hold – and for Ramban, the first step that leads away from mitzvot ends in an avoidable catastrophe that some grownup thoughtfulness – the kind afforded by learning, and faith in the community’s vision – could have prevented.

May we keep ourselves far from fear, with each other’s help and support, and may we do what we can to allay our neighbors’ fear through doing justice with them and for them.

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