A Focus on the Here and Now

The nostalgic memories we have of the past may seem appealing -- but they require closer inspection.

Commentary on Parashat Sh'lach, Numbers 13:1-15:41

In keeping with a theme we’ve seen in recent weeks, the title of this portion seems to tell it all. But digging a little bit deeper, the Hebrew construction of the phrase — shlah lekha (literally, “send for you”) — beckons for more interpretation. It seems to be written as an emphatic. It is not simply a request made by God of Moses. Rather, it highlights the way in which Moses is to send out his advance team. Some will argue that the Hebrew implies a great deal more than even the emphasis that is clearly present in the text suggests.

In a well-known passage of the Torah, Moses is directed by God to send out scouts to investigate the land of Israel. It seems like a simple activity; in truth, any smart military strategist would send an advance team ahead to inspect an unknown area, especially if an enemy’s presence is anticipated.

The lekha — resonant of the charge to Abraham early in the book of Genesis (lekh lekha— is a hint to Moses that he will have to look deeply into himself (lekha) if he is to truly understand the reports of the scouts. The scouts will return with facts and figures about the land, but no information is objective. Everything must be scrutinized, especially when it is as serious as plotting out the future journey of the Jewish people.

And indeed Moses learns that the scouts scoured the land but returned with two contradictory reports. Only Caleb and Joshua see the full potential in the land. The others are fearful and ready to retreat, to return to Egypt, even to the slavery they fought hard to leave behind.

It is not clear what Caleb and Joshua thought about the past–but in actuality, it doesn’t matter. They are guided by the present as they envision the future. The event seems reminiscent of the false trips down the nostalgic memory lane of the shtetl that the American Jewish community experienced some years ago. They forgot that the dreamy shtetl life with all of its wonderments was terrible. That is why our ancestors left and moved to these shores.

According to the Torah text, the episode that documents this part of the Jewish people’s journey in this week’s Torah reading saddens God greatly. After redeeming the Israelites from Egypt, guiding them through the desert and bringing them to the edge of the Promised Land, the people are still not satisfied.

The events of the Exodus — and even the revelation of Sinai and the various encounters in the desert–seem to be insufficient to impress the Israelites. They are in a “What have You done for us lately?” mood. The people rebelled against Moses and against God.

Moses shows great compassion for the people and asks God to forgive them. God agrees but not without punishment. The people who could not embrace the future would not be entitled to see it.

Nostalgia for Days Gone By

Perhaps we are at a similar point in the journey of the Jewish people in this land of promise called America. There are those who see a future that is untenable and wish to return to the past. And others see the reality that confronts us and choose to embrace it fully.

The nostalgic memories we have of the way things used to be may seem appealing on the surface, but, as the title of this portion shows, some things require closer inspection for complete understanding. When we examine our memories more closely, we can learn a great deal more. Things may not have been as rosy as we remember them to be, and we may be better served by focusing on the present.

We should heed the important lessons that this portion provides through its depiction of the actions of Caleb and Joshua and apply them to our own lives today. By refusing to become bogged down in halcyon memories of bygone days and focusing instead on the here and now, we can work to create a more optimistic future for us all. It remains our only option.

Provided by special arrangement with Big Tent Judaism.

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