Parshat Shlach 2017
What is the role of fear in our lives? Is it the great paralyzer as with the Israelites who would not even consider entering the land of Canaan after 10 of the 12 spies spoke of how large and fierce and undefeatable the Canaanites were, or is it the leavening agent that keeps us on our toes? Or perhaps both.
There is no doubt that fear played the major role in the Israelites’ reaction to the reports brought back by the spies. And rightly so. Ten of the 12 leaders of the people who were sent to reconnoiter the land said they didn’t have an iceberg’s chance in hell to beat them, so why shouldn’t the people be afraid? The other two spies, Joshua and Kalev, were totally outnumbered.
But that does not explain why the spies themselves were afraid? After all, they were princes, leaders, people of status and stature who must have been able to stand firm in crises. So – why their cowardliness?
The answers given run the gamut. On the one hand, we have those who say they actually feared the people because they were so big. And judging by the sample that the spies brought back – the bunch of grapes that was so heavy it had to be carried by two people – of course the residents of the land were big! They ate big and they were big!
Another approach is that they were still under the influence of Egypt. It was, after all, only two years or so since leaving. This is supported by the spies’ description of how the residents of the land viewed them and how they viewed themselves. Remember, the spies did not – could not – know how the Canaanites felt about them. So they simply projected their own low self-image onto the Canaanites’ vision. They saw us as grasshoppers, the spies say, and that’s how we saw ourselves. Grasshoppers. Little bugs just waiting to be squished.
And then there is the third approach in explaining the spies’ inexplicable fear. They didn’t want to leave the desert. Why should they? Some commentators refer to the spiritual element involved. In the desert they could be totally spiritual. They didn’t have the worries of making a living – they had manna every morning waiting outside – they didn’t have to buy anything – we read later that their sandals never wore out and their dresses never got threadbare.
In this vein, Rabbi Jonathan Sachs quotes the Lubavitch Rebbe as saying that the spies were not afraid of failure – they knew they could beat the Canaanites – they were afraid of success. They knew they could take over the land. These Canaanites were nowhere near as powerful and domineering as Pharaoh of Egypt and look what God had done to him! So Canaan should be child’s play. The leaders did not want to go into the land because then they would become like any other nation, having to engage in commerce and security and developing a life style like any other nation.
The fact is that all of these explanations probably played a role in the spies’ decision to give a bad report. They knew what God had done and could do but they also knew how the Israelites were behaving in the desert and the thought may have occurred to them that God couldn’t be so merciful and forgiving forever. Maybe Canaan would be payback time: God would bring them through the desert unscathed and let them sink in Canaan.
Or perhaps they were really afraid of the Canaanites. Remember, when first exiting Egypt, the Israelites were taken a roundabout way so that they wouldn’t encounter the Philistines and war and run back to Egypt. This is two years later – how much of 200 years of slavery can be erased in two years?
Going back to the opening question, what role does fear play in our lives? This country had fear here 50 years ago and it pushed us to take chances over a six-day period that happened to succeed brilliantly. Six years later we had lost our fear and got slapped hard in the Yom Kippur War. A little more self-preserving caution would have served us well then.
What do we fear today? Nothing and everything – depends on whom you ask. Do we fear the Iranians, the Hamas and Hezballah, the BDS movement? Do we fear the United States and what it might do or not do in a given situation? Do we fear what’s happening on our political scene, in the Knesset? Do we fear what’s happening in our religious scene? And of course, do we fear for our dear ones for whatever reason?
We can answer yes to some or all of the above questions but we also realize that the level of fear differs in each case. For the Israelites, the spies played on their worst fear, of dying in the desert. They had been taken out of Egypt with great fanfare and now what they had feared then seemed to be coming true: they had burnt their bridges behind them and they had no bridge to cross to the future. They thought they were stuck.
But they weren’t. Immediately after the people are informed of their non-future – they are going to die in the desert – they are told: “When you come to the land of your residence that I am giving you” – you will bring such and such sacrifices with wine. Rabbi Ari Kahn notes the ironic symbolism. The spies brought back a bunch of huge grapes. The Israelites’ children will offer up wine with the sacrifices. What separates grapes and wine? Time.
The spies and the Israelites saw only the grapes, the present. But you need time to make wine and to make a nation. Given that time, a nation will form and that nation will be able to bring the wine with the sacrifice.
We can all use wine-colored glasses at times to look ahead to a future where today’s grapes and gripes have mellowed into a fine libation.