Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Some call it the greatest failure of leadership in all of Torah.
God commands Moses to send spies to the Promised Land to bring back report on both the land and the people who live there. Moses chooses twelve spies, one from each tribe, each a prince among his people. They explore the land for forty days and then return carrying a cluster of grapes so large that it took two men to carry it. They described the land as “flowing with milk and honey,” fertile beyond their wildest dreams. However, they also reported that the land was inhabited by well-armed people who lived in fortified cities. So far so good. This is an accurate depiction of what they found. The failure in leadership is what follows: two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, argued that we should continue forward. However, the other ten spoke of “a land that consumes those who dwell in it.” [Num. 13:32] Even more, they described the inhabitants as giants, saying that in comparison, “we were in our own eyes like grasshoppers, and so we must have been in their eyes.” [Num. 13:33] The people wailed and mourned so much so that they were completely paralyzed, saying: “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this wilderness would that we had died. And why is the Lord bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? … Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” [Num. 14:2-3]
From among all the people, only Joshua and Caleb offered leadership. Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before the mob, and panic ruled the day. Let’s not forget that this was the generation that witnessed the Ten Plagues, the Sea part, and the Revelation at Sinai. They saw Pharaoh’s army destroyed and Egypt, the greatest superpower of its day, brought to its knees. Given that personal history, how could they not have confidence in overcoming a handful of Canaanite tribes?
The ten spies who pedaled fear not only encouraged the people to forget about their faith in God, but asserted that they could not put their trust in each other. As a result, God determined that they were not ready, nor would they ever be. For forty years, the Israelites would wander through the Wilderness, during which time the current generation would age and die and a new generation, born to freedom, would arise. Of all the Israelites who left Egypt, only Joshua and Caleb would survive the years of wandering and enter the land.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that great leaders lead by example, and that great leaders do not engage in fear mongering. Rather, great leaders instill confidence – based on realistic assessments – and cultivate our faith in what we can achieve together.
Fear does not empower; fear does not elevate; fear diminishes us and damages our potential. Our greatest leaders have had faith in us, and have taught us to in turn to have faith as well. Consider the amount of faith God places in us. Forget that God has entrusted all of Creation to our care. Let’s looks at something more limited: the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are not structured as “if/then” propositions. The commandment does not say: if you commit murder, then this shall be the penalty. That approach subtlety undermines our faith in ourselves – it says, ‘you already know that murder is bad, but without this penalty you might decide to kill anyway.’ No, the command says: “Don’t murder.” In other words, God is saying to us that we are capable. We are capable of not committing murder, or theft, or adultery, or idolatry. We are perfectly capable of not doing any of those things, and by simply saying “don’t” God is in effect also saying that there is a Divine confidence in us. We can succeed. This is great leadership, modeled from on high.
Just as God models great leadership at Sinai, Shelach Lecha models what not to do. However, also it reminds us – through our experience of failure through fear (and our eventual triumph through faith) – that we are not grasshoppers after all.
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