Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
“100% of the shots I don’t take, don’t go in.” (Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky)
Twelve scouts were sent to spy out the Promised Land, each of them leaders of their tribes. After forty days they returned to the Israelite camp and reported:
“… We came to the land … And it flows with milk and honey … Nevertheless, the people who live in the land are strong and the cities are walled … We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we…” [Numbers 13:27, 28, 31]
The panic and chaos that quickly spread through the camp was thorough. Never mind that two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, believed that we were strong enough and urged us forward. Never mind that God had already demonstrated miraculous power in Egypt, at the Reed Sea and at Sinai, and had literally promised this land to us. At the end of the day, the Israelites did what so many of us do – ignored the good to focus on the bad (or in this case, their fear). The result was disastrous. God decided to destroy the Israelites and give Moses a new people to lead. Moses pleaded for a Divine pardon, and God eventually relented, but with the condition that we wander for forty years in the Wilderness to learn how to be a free people before entering the land. Everyone over the age of 20, except Joshua and Caleb, would die in the Wilderness. A new, untainted generation would inherit the land.
Why did the Israelites panic? And why was God so angry? Let’s go back to the scout’s report:
“We cannot go up against the people for they are stronger than we … And there did we see the Nephilim, sons of the giants … we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so were we in their eyes.” (Numbers 13:31-3)
Giants and grasshoppers? These are exactly the problem.
When we see ourselves as “grasshoppers” it is only a matter of time before we believe that everyone else sees us as “grasshoppers” too – regardless of what they might actually think! The problem with this approach is that it has no basis in reality – it is entirely manufactured in our minds – yet it can lead us to make poor decisions in reality. In modern terms, this story is about the pitfalls and dangers of deep-seated low self-esteem.
When we believe we will fail, we probably will. The problem with “giants and grasshoppers” was that these images brought the Israelites to a place of complete inaction – they just gave up on the spot. This was the cause of God’s anger – their self-doubt was so profound that they could not see the real power they had, and they lost faith in God.
To be clear, the problem was not what the spies saw – it was how they (and the Israelites) perceived what they saw. Caleb and Joshua did not contradict the actual report. They did not say that the land was not hostile, or that the Canaanite cities were not well fortified and defended by fierce warriors. They acknowledged the challenge and the danger, but they also looked at the whole picture. Instead of seeing the Israelites as weak, they recognized that (with the help of God) we were strong. They believed in us, and in God. So, after their colleagues urged inaction, they said: “Aloh na’aleh – let us go up and take possession of it.”
As for the self-defeating belief that everyone around us saw themselves as giants and us as grasshoppers – that was categorically false. In this week’s haftarah portion, the Canaanite woman Rahab tells the next generation of Israelite spies:
“I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you ... As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you.” (Josh. 2:9-11)
The Israelites who fled Egypt were bred in captivity, and in a sense, they suffered collectively from what Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) calls “learned helplessness” – a recurring internal narrative that reinforces powerful self-doubt and feelings of helplessness. Learned helplessness plays a devastating role in anxiety and depression. CBT has shown tremendous success in treating these illnesses by helping patients to use their cognition to recognize that these thoughts are not based in reality. As a therapeutic process, it helps them to develop different, more affirming thought patterns supported by real-life experiences.
In Shelach Lecha, Torah anticipates this approach. Shelach Lecha warns us about the danger of these negative emotions. It inspires us to be like Caleb and Joshua – to use our cognition to overcome our negative emotions so that our emotions do not distort our perceptions. It teaches us to see the world as it is, rather than as what we fear it might be. And as Rabbi Jonathan Saks wrote, it reminds us to: “let faith banish fear.”
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Naso is a smorgasbord of seemingly (but not really) random topics leading up to the consecration of the Mishkan (the Sanctuary): a census of some of the Levitical clans, what to do with ritually unclean people, how to handle accusations of adultery (with the strange ritual of the sotah), the rules and restrictions of the Nazarite and the famous three-part priestly benediction.
This week let’s focus on the nazir – the one who takes the Nazarite vow and pursues holiness in the extreme. The Hebrew word for holy, kadosh, literally means, “set apart for God.” The nazir is someone who takes a vow to set themselves apart either for a specific period of time, or for their entire life. Once the vow has been taken, there are three restrictions: they may not cut their hair, drink wine or come into contact with the dead.
If the purpose of being a nazir is to remove all distractions so that the nazir can focus only on God and holiness, then there is a certain logic to these restrictions. Coming into contact with the dead naturally leads us to consider our own mortality. If we are thinking about ourselves, then we are not thinking about God. Similarly, grooming oneself could also be a distraction from God. Plus, the long hair of the nazir would make them easy to spot – alerting others to respect their special status. Finally, drinking wine does not exactly clear the mind. How can we be holy if we are drunk?
Being nazir may lead to an intensification of holiness, but it is an extreme act, and despite its clear depiction in Torah, is rarely if ever seen today. On the contrary, the rabbis ordained that holy days and life cycle celebrations be sanctified with the kiddush (literally “the holy prayer”) over wine.
How can this be? How can drinking wine lead to holiness when the Torah says abstaining from wine leads to holiness?
The rabbis devoted an entire tractate of the Talmud to this question and continued to argue it well into the medieval period. In the end, the consensus suggests that different people require different paths. As a general rule, the rabbis advocated the path of moderation. They understood how an extreme approach to piety could lead to religious extremism. However, they allowed that some people, perhaps because they were spiritually unstable (either on a temporary or permanent basis), needed the rigidity of the nazir’s vow as a spiritual counterbalance.
For the rest of us, the vast majority, they offer a different approach. Rabbi Eliezar HaKappar taught that asceticism is not a path to holiness, but rather is a sin, because wine is a pleasure which comes from God’s creation. He wrote: “from this we may infer that if one who denies himself the enjoyment of wine is called a sinner, all the more so one who denies himself the enjoyment of other pleasures of life.”
Not that he was a Hedonist, far from it! The rabbis were, after all, passionate about moderation. Rather, Eliezar recognized that every pleasure of life is a gift from God. For us, pursuing a life of holiness does not require withdrawal from the world, but the opposite. Our task is to orient ourselves towards God through gratitude, recognizing the Divine in all the good which surrounds and permeates our lives. So, eat, drink and enjoy! And offer thanks to the One who so generously made every bit of it possible.
Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Once, my clergy assistant of years gave me one of my favorite birthday gifts ever: a coffee mug proudly emblazoned with the seal of the “National Messy Desk Society.”
I love this mug, because it perfectly describes my self-created work environment. Generally speaking, I know where everything on my desk is, but periodically, the mess grows so much that I can no longer be confident that I am on top of everything. That’s when I clean my desk to restore some semblance of order, and neat piles appear for a brief period. The cycle repeats every few months, until after a few years, I need to really clean my desk to the point where the surface is completely cleared. Then, for one glorious day, a sense of perfect order is restored to my office.
This week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar is all about restoring order from chaos. With the beginning of the Book of Numbers, we pick up our narrative right where it ended at the end of Exodus. Since we have spent so much time in Leviticus learning about priestly and holy ideas, we might need a little refresher on hamatzav – the situation:
The Israelites are still camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. We have received the Ten Commandments, survived the Golden Calf, and built the mishkan – the Tent of Meeting where God can dwell in our midst. We have been out of Egypt just over a year when the Book of Numbers begins. That means that people of Israel, until now, have been a mob of disorganized refugees, exposed to attack from marauders like the Amalekites.
Bamidbar begins with a detailed census, tribe by tribe, of the Israelite men capable of serving in the military, and of the priests of age to serve in the mishkan. The tribes are also assigned specific places in the camp, with the mishkan placed in the center. This creates a protective barrier for the entire camp, and for the Israelites when they are on the move.
By definition, slaves have no control over their lives. After generations of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites are finally beginning to establish order and control through the census and reorganization in Bamidbar. Never mind that Bamidbar means “in the Wilderness.” We need order most when the world around us seems “wild” or out of our control. So, with proper pomp and circumstance each tribe steps forward to announce the results of its census and to take its place among the free people of Israel. This is a great, even exhilarating moment. And it is absolutely necessary before we can begin the journey to the Promised Land.
Does this mean that the journey will be smooth?
No, not really.
Just as I create a mess on my desk every day, so too the ancient Israelites acted to bring less order and more messiness into their own lives once the journey began.
Not that we should be surprised
We plan, we organize, we create beautiful visions and strategies – and then, as we begin to act on our plans, life gets in the way. We deal. We adjust. We adapt. We reorganize and we try again.
Torah does not teach us that everything will be perfect, or even easy. However, in this week’s parasha, it teaches that we are part of something greater than ourselves – and if we read ahead, that despite the difficulties along the way, one day we will reach the land of Promise.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras