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.”
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