Parashat Sh’lach: Dreams and Disappointments

What is this generation of Israelites to do in the face of a collective terminal diagnosis?

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

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

So says the American poet Langston Hughes. And it is this devastating challenge, the death of the dream, that confronts us in Parashat Sh’lach. In what may be the most tragic story in the entire Torah, Parashat Sh’lach tells of how the whole congregation of adult Israelites learns that they will not get to enter the promised land.

The months following the exodus from Egypt have occasioned major mishaps as well as mighty miracles. But until now, even the worst of these errors — the sin of the golden calf — has been neutralized by Moses’ intercession. All seems to be proceeding according to plan: Instructions for ritual and right living have been being rolled out, and the Israelites’ magnificent encampment, arrayed around a central shrine, has been moving gradually closer to the borders of the land God has promised will be theirs.

But when the chiefs of the twelve tribes return from 40 days reconnoitering the territory, the majority convey a depressing report: Although the country is indeed incredibly fertile, its inhabitants are too strong to be conquered. The land itself, they report, devours its inhabitants. In response, the people not only weep and wail, but threaten to assault Moses, Aaron and the two outlier chiefs who produce a more optimistic report. The congregation demands a new leader who will take them back to Egypt. 

In response, God vows:

None of those involved — who have seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who have tried Me these many times and have disobeyed Me — shall see the land that I promised on oath to their ancestors; none of those who spurn Me shall see it …. In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop … your carcasses shall drop in this wilderness, while your children roam the wilderness for 40 years, suffering for your faithlessness, until the last of your carcasses is down in the wilderness. (Numbers 14:22-23, 29, 32-33)

Although there may be consolation in the idea that their children at least will make it to the promised destination, what happens now for all the adults who know they will die before this happens? Decades of wilderness, exile, disappointment and trial stretch out before them.

If we live to be middle aged or older, many of us will reach the sobering realization that our lives have not turned out quite as we hoped. Perhaps with enough focus, grace and faith they still might. But more often, we treat resignation as maturation, and acceptance of life’s limits as a bittersweet blessing of age. The deaths of those we most love can break our hearts – and often this is hardest when these deaths spell the end of our dreams of an anticipated future together.

Collectively, as Hughes warns, the death of the dream may be devastating. What is this generation to do in the face of a collective terminal diagnosis?

The closing verses of this Torah portion perhaps offer a hint of consolation. Here we are instructed regarding tzitzit, the tassels with a thread of bright blue (tekhelet) that are to be tied to the corners of our clothes (Numbers 15:37-41). The Talmud (Menachot 43b) asks why in particular this color was chosen, and explains as follows:

It is because tekhelet resembles in its color the sea, and the sea resembles the sky, and the sky resembles God’s Throne of Glory, as it was perceived “like a mosaic of sapphire stone,” in Exodus 24:10.

When we glimpse the blue of the tzitzit, it reminds us of the sea and of the sky. It reminds us of the limitless and eternal. The sea and the sky are in endless, life-affording cycle with one another. They show us the secrets of merging and of transcendence. 

We know that our lives will end, like all lives end. Our dreams may come to nothing. We may never reach the promised land. But, say the tzitzit — look up! Look up into the limitless expanse of the vast blue sky, and perhaps even your broken-winged bird may still take flight.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Reading Torah Through Grief newsletter on June 16th, 2023. To sign up to receive this newsletter each week in your inbox, click here.

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