Parashat Shlah

Slowly Healing the World

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

Print this page Print this page

This profound lack of confidence is not foreign to us. Faced with overwhelming and seemingly intractable oppressive power, such as the might of China or the dictatorships in Sudan or Burma, the devastating impact of natural disasters, or even the insidious inequalities in our own country, we often feel helpless before forces and people beyond our control. Yet in so many small and large ways, our impact can be felt.

The power of every individual to impact a situation is implied in these verses, as the parashah explicitly names every one of the spies who entered the land of Israel (Numbers 13:4-16). This naming suggests a focus on individual responsibility, an assertion that each person can make a profound difference, as Caleb and Moses do in defending the people before God after their rebellion.

The Zohar goes further, suggesting that acts of personal bravery and responsibility can empower not only ourselves but God. The Zohar looks at the words that Moses uses to plead on the people's behalf. He says (Numbers 14:17): "may the power of God be great," and appeals to God's thirteen attributes of Mercy (Numbers 14:18-20).

By invoking God's amazing capacity for forgiveness--essentially stirring God to access these powerful attributes--Moses empowers God to forgive. We see that human acts of justice can help God recognize and enact God's best self. Not only are we not powerless, but our power extends to bringing the Divine to action.

Yet this power is not a magic wand to achieve a better world. Neither Caleb nor Moses is able to win immediate entry for the people into the Land, but they transform a death sentence into a promise of deferred entry into the Land after 40 years of wandering.

Like Moses and Caleb, we make progress in fits and starts. By averting tragedy or making a situation bearable, we slowly heal the world and make it a better place. And this slow healing, this taking responsibility and doing what we are able, can have profound consequences.

Many of the problems we encounter in the world seem overwhelming, complicated, and insolvable. Often social conditions and structures of power seem too deeply entrenched to change, or too large to conquer, as they did to the spies. But on closer inspection, this story reveals merely a failure of vision and not a failure of ability.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels

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