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Torah Commentary
Sh'lach L'cha (June 16, 2012)

Spy vs. Spy

Sherry Nehmer,

EVER WONDER WHY the Israelites wandered 40 years in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land? It’s not that far from Egypt, and even without a GPS, surely they could have found their way to Canaan in a shorter amount of time. “Wandering Jew” is a phrase we’ve all heard, but honestly, were they that lost?

Here’s the story.

At God’s command, Moses sends 12 men, one from each tribe, to scout the land of Canaan and report back to the people what they have found. They go, they observe, they investigate every nook and cranny. When they return after 40 days, they bear with them enormous bunches of grapes, luscious sweet figs and juicy pomegranates. Truly this is a land flowing with milk and honey, just as God promised. Things are looking good for the Israelites! Sounds like a great place to make their home.

There’s just one little glitch.

“The people who live there are powerful!” one spy reports. “Their cities are fortified!” cries another. “There are Amalekites living there!” warns a third. And so it goes on and on, 10 of the spies, these leaders of their tribes, urging Moses against entering Canaan.

The people start to wail. “If we go, we’ll all be killed!”

But there is a dissenting opinion. It comes from Caleb, another one of the spies. “Let’s go,” he urges. ”God has shown us the way, and we will overcome all obstacles.” His opinion is seconded by Joshua, Moses’ hand-picked right-hand man.

The argument between the two groups escalates. “Their people are GIANTS!” argues another scout. “The land devours its settlers!” Their argument reaches hyperbolic proportions: “Why, we saw Nephilim there! We’re teeny tiny grasshoppers compared to them!”

The Nephilim? Seriously? In Genesis the Nephilim are described thusly: “The sons of God joined with the daughters of mankind, who bore them children — they were the ancient warriors, the men of renown.” Children of angels, demon offspring or mighty giants, whatever they are (or are not), Nephilim strike terror into the Israelites as they listen to the spies’ report: Warning! Weapons of mass destruction ahead!

Panic ensues. Blaming begins. It’s a mob scene. “Better we should have died in Egypt!” becomes “Let’s go back to Egypt!” and “This is all Moses and Aaron’s fault!”

“Wait a minute!” It’s Caleb and Joshua again. “God has given us this land of milk and honey. Don’t be afraid of the people there. If God is pleased with us, we will triumph! Just don’t rebel against God!”

It’s too late; nobody wants to hear their message. They pick up stones, ready to hurl them at Moses and company. “Those guys are going to kill us!” “I bet they decided to tell us we could go even before they checked the place out!” “Yeah, the fix was in all along!” “I know! It’s a conspiracy — Moses and his brother, Aaron, and his favorite, Joshua, and his brother-in-law, Caleb! They’re in cahoots! What did you expect them to say — ‘Oops, we led you to the wrong place?’”

In the midst of all this chaos, as the whole community threatens to pelt them with stones and turn tail to Egypt, God’s presence appears to Moses. God is not amused. “How long will the people spurn Me and have no faith in Me? I will strike them down with pestilence and disown them!”

Moses, ever the negotiator, strikes a bargain. “If You slaughter them in the wilderness, then Your enemies will say You lacked the power to lead us to the Promised Land.” (You have to hand it to Moses — his negotiating skills are top drawer.) And so God relents, somewhat, and proclaims through Moses that none of the Israelites who left Egypt — that is, the adults — will live to see them enter into Canaan. It will be another 40 years, one for each day the land was scouted, before the Israelites achieve their desires. When that whole population has died off, leaving only the new generation, then, and only then, will they enter the Promised Land. Their children will suffer for their rebellion and lack of faith, but they will eventually settle the lands that lie beyond the wilderness.

It’s a harsh punishment but not a death sentence for the people. And God has exceptions: Caleb and Joshua, the two spies who urged the people to enter Canaan without fear, will live to see them march triumphantly into the fertile lands. And further along, in the book of Joshua, we do read about Caleb, age 85, as he takes possession of Hebron in the land of Canaan. God’s promises, and his punishments, all pan out exactly as proclaimed.

We have to ask ourselves: Why this immediate rush to negativity? Why did the people choose to believe the spies who were pessimistic and afraid, rather than those who were optimistic about their chances? Did Moses rig the outcome by sending his cronies Joshua and Caleb with the others? Highly unlikely. Are we a nation of kvetchers? Possibly. But this is really a lesson about faith, about believing in God and trusting that He won’t let us down. Isn’t that a whole lot more appealing than wandering in the wilderness?

Here — have a pomegranate.

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