Slowly Healing the World

Like Moses and Caleb, we make progress in fits and starts.


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In Parashat Shlah, we are told the story of the spies who investigate the Land of Israel before the people enter and settle there. They return and report that though the land is bountiful, the people who dwell within it are strong, terrible, and cannot be overcome (Number 13:27-31). Despite the lone protests of Caleb, who insists that the Israelites can indeed possess the land, the people of Israel are paralyzed with fear, begin to weep and defame God, and then insist on returning to Egypt. It is this rebellion that is punished by 40 years of desert wandering.

Crisis of Faith

What we witness in the story of the spies is a profound failure of confidence and trust. Despite their dramatic exodus from Egypt and victories over enemies on the journey, the majority of the spies lack faith in their ability to conquer the land. Though they admit that the land itself is rich–flowing with milk and honey–they conclude (Numbers 13:28) “but the people are strong.”

Indeed, the word used here for “but”–efes (nothing)–actually indicates a negation of everything that has gone before. It is as if they are saying: “the land is bountiful, but that means nothing, for the people are too strong for us.” This transforms the way they see the land, describing it in their terror as (Numbers 13:32) “a land that consumes its inhabitants.”

They see themselves as powerless to confront the challenges that lie before them, telling the people that (Numbers 13:33) “we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so we were in theirs.” What is striking about this statement is their projection of their own fear and lack of confidence onto the enemy. Because they felt as helpless as grasshoppers, they imagined that the inhabitants could surely see them as such.

Even more devastating than their lack of faith in themselves is their lack of faith in God, implied in the Talmud. The Rabbis take the spies’ assessment of the enemy’s relative strength further by re-reading the pivotal verse, “they are stronger than us (mimenu)” as “they are stronger than Him (mimeno).” Changing the pronunciation of a single vowel suggests that the spies were actually claiming that the Canaanites were more powerful even than God (Sotah 35a). 

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Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels teaches Jewish thought and mysticism at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

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