Shelach Lecha: Opening up to a wider, less fearful view

Shelach Lecha

Numbers 13:1-15:41

Joshua 2:1-24

The difference between faith and fear can lie in a slight shift in perspective. And this can make all the difference.

This week's parashah brings us the pivotal story of the spies, sent ahead to scout out the Land of Israel in advance of the Israelite conquest of the land. The scouts were to bring back information about the land and its inhabitants, about military challenges to be met there, and about the land's natural resources. The 12 spies return with the report that the land indeed flows with milk and honey, that it is rich with fruit, but that it is inhabited by powerful giants in enormous, fortified cities. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, bring back a hopeful report, urging the people to believe that, with God's help, the land will be theirs.

The difference between the two reports is stark. "Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, `Let us by all means go up [to the land of Israel], and we shall gain possession of it, for we will surely be able [yachol nuchal ] to do it.' But the men who had gone up with him said, `We will not be able [lo nuchal ] to overtake that people, for they are stronger than we'" (Numbers 13:30-1). One group saw the challenges, yet believing in God's help, reported, "We can do it." The other group saw only the danger, and without faith to cushion their fear, reported, "We cannot do it."

One commentator on the biblical text exquisitely captures the difference in this story between the perspective of fear and the perspective of faith. Rabbi Y. Eiger (quoted in Itturei Torah vol. 5, p. 78) noticed that, in giving the spies their assignment, Moses had said, "Go up…into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is…" (Numbers 13:17-8). Eiger took special note of the text's mention of the hill country, and imagined Moses saying, "See the Land of Israel from the perspective of the generations, from the view of eternity, in the air of the summit, of ascent, of loftiness."

From the grand perspective at the top of the mountain, with awareness of the role of this land in the history of the people of Israel and in the heart of God, they would surely see possibility, a future filled with blessing. From that height, they would know that they could overcome the challenges on the ground. Instead, the spies, overwhelmed by fear, saw only the lowly, limited perspective: "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them." (13:33)

Perspective makes all the difference. How much of our lives do we live stuck at the foot of the mountain, able only to see how large are the challenges we face and how great the risks? From this place, we ourselves feel diminished: Like a small child in a room full of adults, we feel ourselves dwarfed and overwhelmed. It is only when we are able to climb to "the top of the mountain," the place of broader perspective, that we can see possibilities in the midst of threat, opportunity in the midst of challenge. Only in this expanded state of mind can we find ourselves saying, "We can do it."

In a situation in which only fear and confusion are visible, it can be extremely useful to literally climb a mountain in order to cultivate a change in perspective. A walk among the giant redwoods or an hour at the beach with the roar of the sea in the background can put us in touch with a larger story, within which the day's challenge looms not nearly so large. An hour spent in prayer with community may do just the same, widening the frame of our perspective. Sometimes a walk around the block, a brief moment to breathe fresh air and listen to the song of the birds is enough to break our fixation on a small piece of the picture, opening us to see possibilities where before there was only fear.

The spies' failure of perspective and courage cost them dearly. As a punishment for their faithless report, the Israelites were sent to wander for 40 years in the wilderness before entering the Land. May we learn from this powerful piece of Torah that there are times when we must climb to a higher place in order to see the full picture of perspective and possibility in our lives.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as the coordinator of Jewish Community Engagement at Faith in Action Bay Area. She can be reached at rebamy@eilberg.com.