a colorful illustration of two men hefting a large branch with a large bunch of grapes on it
The Israelite spies return from Canaan laden with a bounty of grapes (Illustration/Richard Andre, 1884)

4 ways to act with wisdom and grace when all around a nation is in chaos

Numbers 13:1–15:41
Joshua 2:1–24

Entering a foreign land is perilous, as all immigrant families know. A new land is intimidating — filled with things we do not understand, grandeur (partly built of our hopes) and fear of how we will be received.

This week’s parashah offers us the evocative account of the incident of the spies, in which 12 scouts are sent to explore the Land of Israel and bring back a report to the Israelite camp. This story marks a key turning point in Israelite history, resulting in God’s decree that the Israelites wander in the desert for a full generation, until a new generation emerges.

Metaphorically, this story dramatically portrays underlying dynamics of other stories of emigration. It also brings us wisdom for times like our own, when many Americans, without having left their homes, feel that they live in a changed national landscape, an unfamiliar and frightening land.

Four things went terribly wrong when the spies returned from their trip to the Land.

1. Caleb and Joshua, the only two of the group who return with their faith intact, react strongly when the other 10 spies report that “the people who inhabit the country are powerful, the cities are fortified and very large” and its people fearsome (Numbers 13:28).

Rightly concerned that this part of the spies’ report would frighten the Israelites, Caleb hushed the people and urged them to have courage (13:30). But his words, rather than encouraging optimism, discounted their fear and thereby made it stronger.

2. Agitated by Caleb’s invalidating words, the other spies grow hysterical, moving into exaggerated, terrifying and downright false statements about what they had seen. Now they declare, “The country we traversed is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are enormous …” (13:32).

Feeling unheard by Caleb, the 10 spies, departing from the truth, intensify their rhetoric, offering a horrifying fantasy of what and whom the Israelites might meet in the Land.

3. This dreadful image in turn deepens the spies’ own self-doubt and fear, graphically illustrated by their words “… we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them” (13:33). The description of the gigantic people of the Land expresses their own feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and vulnerability. While their words seem silly when taken literally, this is what intense fear feels like.

4. In abject terror, the people begin to wail and cry, begging to return to the security of slavery in Egypt. Fear has turned to delusion and despair, as they imagine that returning to Egypt is even possible, much less desirable. Their present situation unbearable, they lose touch with reality and retreat into a fantasy of safety.

How are we to navigate our own frightening, fragmenting and infuriating experiences in a new land with a measure of grace and wisdom?

The four dysfunctional features of our story paradoxically illustrate what is needed by those of us who feel that we now live in a country not our own, in which long-treasured values of truth, dignity, civic decency and global connectedness are under attack.

1. We must, at times, express our anger, fear and sadness about the state of our country if we are to sustain our energy to work as engaged citizens of our country. We must be kind to one another at these times, for, regardless of political opinions, it is painful to live in angry, unpredictable and polarized times such as these.

2. While our feelings are real, we must distinguish between internal and external realities. Exaggerating the threats we face bombards our battered nervous systems, intensifies our own suffering and further inflames rhetorical battles, making meaningful dialogue and change even less likely.

3. There will be moments when we feel lost and unsure, doubting our ability as individual citizens to make a difference in the civic life of our country. It is true that each of us can do just our part. But we are not grasshoppers. We must claim our power and agency as citizens of a still-robust democracy, and work, shoulder to shoulder with others, to protect the vulnerable and work for justice.

4. While we may have moments of despair, we dare not linger there, or our vision will be distorted and we will be robbed of the clarity we need to make a difference.

May our tradition guide us to work with respect, humility and determination in these troubled times.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg is the director of the Pardes Rodef Shalom Communities Program. She can be reached at rebamy@eilberg.com.