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Spies and the power of the individual

06/26/2019 02:00:56 PM


Rabbi Laura Abrasley

This week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach Lecha, begins with the story of the scouts or spies, representatives from the Israelite tribes sent to investigate the Promised Land before the people enter and settle there. Most of them return with challenging report: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are very powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites (giants or superhumans) there” (Numbers 13:27-28). This report, even though it is challenged by Caleb who insists the Israelites can prevail, paralyzes the entire community. The people cry out against God and Moses, insisting on a return to Egypt. It is this rebellion, a profound crisis of confidence and trust in God, that will result in 40 years of desert wandering.

I find this moment in the story of the Israelites striking. These are a people who have overcome so much, a dramatic exodus from Egypt and countless victories thus far on their journey. Why now do they see themselves as powerless to confront the next set of challenges? And why do they give their enemies so much power, insisting “we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so we were in theirs? (Numbers 13:33). What happened to their confidence in themselves and in God, who has already promised the Israelites will conquer and inhabit the land?

There are moments in all our lives that we too feel a lack of confidence, moments when we are faced with what may seem as overwhelming odds or a devastating challenge. We feel helpless, that there are forces and people acting in ways that are beyond our control. We act out of fear, insisting it is impossible for one person to help a situation instead of gathering our courage and remembering that even the smallest gesture can make a difference.

The text reminds us of the power of every individual to make a change, to impact a situation, by explicitly naming each spy who enters the land. It includes two scouts, Caleb and Joshua, whose hope rarely wavers, who remain convinced that the Israelites are strong and ready to take on this challenge. Progress in the world is slow, but we can heal the challenges and work together to fix some of the brokenness. It is not simple, but not impossible. We must begin by opening our hearts, actively listening to our neighbors and recalling Hillel’s famous words: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

Sun, November 17 2019 19 Cheshvan 5780