What’s Worse, Fear or Wandering?

Our Israelite ancestors wandered a wilderness of fear, scared to proceed, feeling small, wandering for the rest of their lives rather than moving forward through fear.

When I was 20, my life was changed by a visit to the home and studio of a painting teacher. Experiencing the seamless integration of her life and work, I thought to myself: this is how I want to live. I held my image of her authenticity as a touchstone for many disciplined years as I groomed myself to be a working artist, and as I made choices in where and how to create a home for myself and, later, for my family.

Like the spies sent to scout out the Promised Land in this week’s Torah portion, I was blessed with a flash of my own promise. We are given glimpses of possibility with the praise of teachers and with the realization of our aptitudes; we catch sight of who we might become when we are excited by a cause or inspired by the achievement of another, thinking: “I could do that!” We taste our futures when we fall in love, or with the surprising sensation of “coming home” when we alight upon a location in which we’d like to settle.

The challenge of our Torah reading is to allow such foretastes to open our awareness and move us, to arouse our desire to put one foot in front of the other and do the real work of mastery so that we attain our full potential. The challenge is to navigate the wilderness of our lives so that our journeys lead us to the flow of milk and honey. The challenge is to remember the dream when the going gets rough and let it fuel our journeys.

The spies surveying the Promised Land were enraptured, and they returned with a glowing account. But there was a turning point in their report, where fear broke through their excitement. They said the land is good, abundant, and beautiful, however… And with this word, however, horror of the unknown was unleashed. Surely, the flip side of excitement in the face of what’s just ‘round the bend, is incapacity in the face of what we do not yet know, horror at the immensity of what feels to be just beyond our grasp.

Do you remember being a kindergartener visiting the first-grade classroom? High school orientation? The night before your wedding? Re-reading your job description, what you must live up to, after landing the dream job? We know what it is to be filled with anxiety about the unknown territories of our lives. The question is, how do we respond to our fear of challenge, or of change, or of the unfamiliar.

Our Israelite ancestors wandered a wilderness of fear, scared to proceed, feeling small, wandering for the rest of their lives rather than moving forward through fear. Instead of acting courageously, they died unrequited. Having glimpsed a paradisal future, they died as wanderers who didn’t make it to their Promised Land.

There are crazy obstacles in life and lots of reasons to be afraid we’ve made mistakes in judgment or that the way forward is too risky. But our Sacred Myth begs us to know our hearts and to ask: what’s worse, the fear or the wandering?

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