Parashat Sh’lach L’cha

June 16, 2023Gayle Kipp

Parashat Sh’lach L’cha (“Send for Yourself”), Numbers 13:1–15:41, tells the dramatic story of Israelite scouts going into Canaan to survey and report on the land’s inhabitants and natural resources. The story continues with the community’s reaction to the scouts’ assessment and God’s response — severe punishment — to the community’s apparent lack of faith. The story ends with the failed attempt by a group of Israelites to invade Canaan. The portion then shifts away from the story altogether, with instructions on following God’s laws on sacrificial offerings and the wearing of tzitzit.

My d’var Torah will explore the story of the scouts. The Israelites are poised to enter Canaan, their long-anticipated Promised Land, presuming their trek through the wilderness is nearly complete. As God has commanded, Moses tasks 12 tribal leaders to surveil the land and its inhabitants: “…see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor?” (Numbers 13:18–13:20). The Israelite community clearly needs to know what threats the inhabitants pose before settling in the land and whether the land would sustain them.

After forty days, the scouts return from their mission and report to Moses, Aaron, and the entire Israelite community. They express optimism about the land, asserting that “...it does indeed flow with milk and honey.” The fruit they’ve brought back further proves the land’s productivity (Numbers 13:27). But ten scouts advise against going into the land, claiming the inhabitants are stronger than the Israelites and so great in size that “we looked like grasshoppers.” The cities, they continue, are “fortified and very large,” and the country “devours its settlers” (Numbers 13:28–13:33). The community then cries out in panic. They challenge Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership, lamenting having left Egypt and demanding to go back.

Two scouts, Caleb and Joshua, contradict the report, declaring that God will protect the Israelites from the land’s inhabitants, but the Israelites must not rebel against God. When the two scouts urge the people to enter the country, the community threatens to pelt them with stones.

God then appears to the Israelites, infuriated by their lack of faith and ready to decimate the entire community except for Moses. Moses skillfully negotiates with God to reach a compromise punishment: the Israelites will remain in the wilderness for another 40 years — one year for each day the scouts spent in Canaan. The men 20 or older will never enter the Promised Land; they will die in the wilderness. Only their children will enter the land, as well as Joshua and Caleb, in reward for their demonstrated faith in God. God then strikes down the ten unfaithful scouts.

This well-known story strongly resonates with me. In fact, as I began preparing this d’var Torah, I expected that reading the Torah verses would evoke some memory of a personal event or situation which I could present as a modern-day equivalent to the biblical story. But I could recall no such event. While the scout story can certainly be imagined in a modern-day context, I’d be disingenuous to claim that I’ve experienced anything remotely comparable to what these verses depict. On the contrary:

  • I’ve never been in combat or feared for my life at the hands of others. Any “enemies” I’ve had were not the kind who might kill me.
  • While I’m deeply disturbed by reports of the heartbreaking ordeals suffered by immigrants at our borders, these are not my stories. I’ve never been uprooted from my home or traumatized by a dangerous journey to an unknown land and uncertain future.

Why, then, does the story speak to me? It does so because the characters in the drama behave in recognizable ways. Perhaps the most apparent lessons from the story are about having faith in God or lacking in faith and the repercussions of both. But what feels familiar to me is how individuals and a community react — reflexively, with fear and misconceptions — to those who are different. It seems that these reactions, and the associated fallout, have shaped our journey as Jews from as far back as biblical times. And still do so. Present-day examples range in scale from large public arenas to small personal encounters and are abundant. We use the phrase “perception is reality” for a reason. The following questions and their likely answers apply today as they were when the scout story took place.

  • Who hasn’t responded, at least initially, with trepidation when encountering someone different?
  • Who hasn’t been part of a group in which individual fears have consolidated, obscuring the truth and giving a false sense of validation?
  • Who hasn’t accepted a biased viewpoint as a fact?

Yet, I remain optimistic, aware that many communities and organizations, some within the Reform Movement, promote cross-cultural understanding and social justice. An interfaith, intercultural organization I’m involved with, the Source of Light (SoL) Center is guided by its vision statement to work towards a world where “… everyone seeks to understand each other, and each faith, culture, and group is honored and respected,” The SoL Center develops programs aimed at promoting understanding between diverse communities through dialogue and education. One such program explored the challenges of breaking down barriers between people of different cultures and religious backgrounds. Participants in small groups discussed ways that communities can work towards this goal. I relayed my cousin’s approach, relevant to the discussion topic and, I now realize, to the scout story:

At one point in time, my cousin was without a cell phone. When she needed to make a call and was away from a landline, she’d ask a stranger if she might borrow theirs. But not any stranger. She would seek out and approach whoever appeared most unlike herself (in dress, skin color, grooming, even body art) — whoever gave her the greatest feeling of discomfort.

She never had a negative experience and, more importantly, became increasingly comfortable interacting with people from various backgrounds. While this simple act of breaking down barriers is on a tiny scale, it strikes me as a powerful step towards intercultural understanding and acceptance.

Recently, I was struck by some comments, insightful and applicable to the scout story, despite the unlikely source: a Showtime® limited series. The series Waco – The Aftermath dramatizes the fallout from the catastrophic 1993 FBI standoff at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. The standoff ended with many fatalities and sparked the rise of anti-government hate groups. In the dramatization, the FBI agent, who had served as a negotiator during the standoff, speaks at a memorial service for the slain Branch Davidians. He ponders why the standoff ended in violence, even though neither the FBI nor the Branch Davidians wanted that to happen. He says:

“…the whole idea of evil, it keeps us from seeing a thing clearly. It blinds us because evil is never on our side. It’s always the other guy... We were scared, and you were scared. And then we called you evil, and you called us evil, and then we both stopped seeing each other and communicating…”

The agent concludes by cautioning the group to remember that “even though we might disagree or be on opposite sides of a thing… We’re more the same than we are different.”

Thinking along those lines, I wonder how the biblical story would have changed if the scouts had pushed past their discomfort and searched for common threads between themselves and the inhabitants of Canaan. Perhaps the two groups would have avoided conflict and even lived as neighbors, especially given that the land was rich in natural resources. This scenario — as imagined through my perspective — is, of course, naïve, considering the huge risks, during biblical times, of invading a country already populated by an established group. In fact, the Israelites that did go into Canaan, despite God’s decree and Moses’ warning, were attacked by the inhabitants.

But even discounting my unrealistic vision of harmonious cohabitation, had the scouts not succumbed to their fears and misconceptions, they would have seen the Canaanites and other inhabitants of the land as humans rather than as giants. Their report would not have terrified the Israelite community, and the Israelites would have escaped God’s punishment altogether. The trajectory of the story would have been dramatically different.

But, as with all of Torah, the story told by these verses is meant to unfold exactly as it does. And we, as Jews, are meant to learn from the story in whatever ways it speaks to us.

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