After the departure from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the construction of the Mishkan, and the census taken of the men to go to war, the children of Israel were now preparing to enter the Promised Land. It says that God first asked Moses to send twelve men to explore the land. The story is well known but it raises certain questions. Why send men to explore a land that had already been promised? Did God need them to send out spies? Did Moses need to send out spies? And how was it that when the explorers returned, the people were far from encouraged to conquer the land that God had already promised them but instead wanted to return to Egypt?
The name of the parashah, Shelach Lecha gives us a hint about a possible answer. It says, “send for yourself”. The spies were sent to check out the people themselves. God didn’t need to explore the land, the people did: their part of the work, their responsibility was to conquer it, to strive and fight for what they wanted.
The twelve men sent had to find answers to seven questions: What is the land like? Is it good or bad? Is the soil rich or poor? Are there trees or not? Are the inhabitants strong or weak? Are there few or many? Are the cities open or fortified?
Exploring the land before taking it was not a bad idea. By answering these questions that Moses asked, the spies would help them develop strategies based upon the number of inhabitants, for example, how to enter if there were walls, how to hide in the forest, were the inhabitants fearful or the contrary, were they ready for war, and so on.
It seems natural and normal to send spies to the place you want to conquer, so where was the problem in sending out spies? It is also noteworthy that the spies reported the truth about what they witnessed concerning the land of Canaan; it was a land of giants and was completely walled in.
Twelve men returned from exploring the land. Their report was exasperating. Ten of the twelve spies brought a negative report saying that it was impossible to conquer the land, that its inhabitants were giants, and that they saw them as being like locusts. They felt that the mission of taking the land of Canaan was more than difficult and only two men, Caleb and Yehoshua (Joshua) trusted that they could do it. They said that the land was good and that they could enter with the help of God. Caleb said, “Let us go up then and take possession of it; for we can do more than they can” (Num. 13:30). Caleb and Joshua were not afraid to defend their views to the majority and were nearly stoned by the crowd.
The twelve men were leaders of the people, princes of each of the tribes, just and respected men. Why did all ten bring a negative report? Perhaps they acted out of fear. Fear can sometimes cloud our minds and our senses. We often form ideas in advance about how a situation will turn out and we develop prejudices that are products of fear and ignorance; our eyes are blinded, and we can see only what our mind wants us to see causing our worst fears to come true. It says in Num.13:33, “We also saw giants there. … and we, in our opinion, were like locusts; and so, we seemed to them. ”
Perhaps they feared leaving the relative safety of the desert where their material and spiritual needs were miraculously met by the Creator. Perhaps they thought that when they returned to a normal life, they would once again feel like slaves. Or perhaps they were afraid that they would become just one more nation among all the existing peoples. Fear weakened them and stopped them from believing that they could conquer the Promised Land. Fear can start with a single person and spread like an epidemic and along with fear comes skepticism, and lack of trust in God gets transmitted. Fear creates a kind of hologram which causes us to see what is not there. That’s why, even with fear, we must seek the strength within ourselves and move on to cross those mirages and force them to disappear. When we are confronted by our fears, we must react by facing them head on. It’s written in the Pirkei Avot “Who is brave? The one who conquers his own fears”.
This is a story of what the twelve explorers found in the land of Canaan, but also of what their eyes found when focusing upon their bodies and the sensations of their hearts and minds: on the resignation, on the failure, and the loss that they felt. Caleb and Joshua’s attitude was one of courage in the face of challenge. Verse 14:24 says that there was “another spirit” in Caleb, which means that he took a “different” attitude than the ten who brought a bad report. The position of Caleb and Joshua teaches us the importance of always staying positive: with strength, with courage, with milk and honey, without fear of giants or walls.
The parashah ends with the commandment of wearing the tzitzit (the fringes on their garment), which are a reminder that we are a Chosen People; that God took us out of Egypt to be His people and bring His light to the nations; that we are free from all fear so that we do not judge by our emotions, or by the sight of our eyes. And let’s not be diverted away from living according to His Commandments, recognizing that He is our Creator and our God.