In this week’s portion, Sh’lach L’cha, we meet the wandering Israelites in a place that feels all too familiar. The people are in the wilderness, getting closer to the Promised Land, their intended destination. God has instructed Moses to send one person from each of the ancestral tribes into the land of Canaan, Israel, to learn more about the physical land and the people who live there.
Upon their return, ten of the scouts report that the land is indeed flowing with milk and honey, but that the inhabitants are strong and powerful and the Israelites will surely be devoured if they enter this new place. They proclaim at the end of their report: “Compared to those we saw, we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves. So, too, we must have looked to them.” Caleb and Joshua, the remaining two scouts, offer a counter narrative, assuring the Israelites that with God’s help, they will surely succeed in creating this new home for their people.
This majority report is one with which so many of us can empathize. Think of any time you have had to start something new. It can be scary to move, to begin a new job, to have to make new friends, to start life again after the loss of a loved one. There are moments when we take a look at what was before us and say, “I can’t do it.” We feel small as we face the task ahead. We feel, as the scouts did, like grasshoppers.
The question our portion presents is how we move forward though fear. From fear, that on the surface, seems perfectly reasonable given what the scouts saw in Canaan after their journey, to the “can-do” attitude of Joshua and Caleb. These minority voices do not dispute the facts that the current inhabitants of Canaan are strong and the battle will be tough, but they come to the opposite conclusion: even though the task ahead may be challenging, we are up to the challenge and we will be able to succeed.
Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk offers insight into this distinction between the factually correct report of the ten nay-sayers and the affirmative assurance of Joshua and Caleb. “What the scouts reported was factually correct, but it was not the truth. The truth is not necessarily as things appear, but stems from the depths of the heart, from the sources of one’s faith. Truth and faith go hand in hand, and a person does not acquire truth easily and by a superficial glance.” Here we learn that a full truth takes into consideration both the facts as they appear and a sense of knowing that we are part of something bigger, a partnership. Perhaps the scouts had forgotten that it was God who would be leading them into this new chapter. Perhaps they underestimated the strength found within their community to overcome even the greatest obstacles. When we take time to cultivate the roots of our relationships, we find that we can weather much more than we could on our own.
The larger community of Israelites is scared by reports of the ten scouts and cry bitterly to God and to Moses. Our portion records that God’s punishment for these people, except for Caleb and Joshua, is that they, themselves, will never enter Israel. Instead, it will be the next generation who sees the promise fulfilled. We may wonder why God reacted so strongly in this moment. Perhaps it is, as the rabbi of Kotzk teaches, that the people seemed to forget about God, and God’s promise to get them to the Promised Land. Or, perhaps God’s punishment is such because of the way our midrash imagines God’s response to the people. In Numbers Rabbah we read: “God says, I take no objection to your saying, ‘we looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes’ but I take offense when you say, ‘so we must have looked to them.’ Could you possibly know how I made you appear in their eyes? Perhaps you appeared to them as angels.’”
If we are lucky, we will continue to find ourselves embarking on new adventures. We are all well aware that these new opportunities often come along with associated risks. We may feel afraid. But it is precisely in this moment of vulnerability that we realize that what lies ahead matters to us; we are fearful because we want to succeed. In these moments, let us reach out — to God, to our family, to our friends — to those with whom we are connected and who remind us that we are not alone. Then we can move from feeling like the small grasshoppers to the angels, the messengers and connectors of our Jewish tradition.
May this week bring us the confidence to confront that about which we are afraid. May we seek out those who support us. And may we remember that we can be angels for one another, living proof of our sacred connections.