The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.
The Israelite spies were sent on a sacred mission and they failed spectacularly. Why? Because they let fear overpower them, overwhelming their capacity for nuanced thought, hopefulness and sacred purpose.
In preparation for the Israelites’ entry into the Land of Israel, God instructed Moses to send 12 scouts, one leader from each of the tribes, to survey the land of Canaan, to “see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor?” (Numbers 13:17-20)
The assignment was to prepare for the possibility that the people of the land would violently resist the Israelites’ entry. Would the resistance be manageable or overwhelming? And was the land rich and beautiful enough to be worth the fight?
After a 40-day journey, the scouts returned with a mixed report. The land does indeed flow with milk and honey and its fruit is beautiful, they said, but the people of the land “are powerful and the cities fortified and very large” (Numbers 13:28), including multiple threatening tribes such as the “Anakites” (the giants) and the dreaded Amalekites.
Two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, tried to temper the others’ terrifying report, saying, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it” (Numbers 13:30). But this attempted suppression of their fear unleashed an even more frightened reaction among the other 10 spies, who proceeded to spread exaggerated lies about the terrors of the land to all of the Israelites. Panic ensued.
In the end, God declared that none of the people of this generation, except for the faithful Joshua and Caleb, would be permitted to enter the land that they had rejected, based on the spies’ report. This generation would have to die out in the desert, and only a new generation would be granted the blessing of entering the land.
How are we to understand the sin of the spies?
In their defense, it was completely reasonable for them to evaluate the level of danger the Israelites would face. They had been asked to assess the military realities on the ground, so reporting their findings could not have been considered sinful. Rather, the scouts erred in exaggerating the threats, letting fear consume them and block out the reality of God’s promised protection. In panic, they turned away from God, completely losing touch with the divine blessing underlying their mission. Fear overpowered a sense of faith, possibility and connectedness to the divine nature of their journey.
In our lives as well, there are surely times when it is appropriate and prudent to exercise caution before jumping into unknown territory — be it a journey, a new project or a difficult human encounter. Failing to assess risks and thoughtfully prepare for them can be foolhardy. But when the brain’s ancient instinct for self-preservation goes unchecked, there is no room for nuanced thought, for weighing multiple possibilities and for letting in faith, hopefulness and love.
The Sefat Emet (“The Language of Truth,” translated and interpreted by Arthur Green) cites an ancient midrash: “Nothing is beloved before God like an emissary sent to do a mitzvah who risks his life for the mission to succeed.” He then comments that, “We are all emissaries to do mitzvot; we were sent into this world by God in order to fulfill His commandments.”
Professor Green writes that this spiritual logic applies not only to mitzvot in the narrow sense. Our “ordinary” pursuits are also infused with the Holy, if only we attend to the sacredness of the work and orient ourselves toward our desire to be of service.
Fear is a powerful force in our psyches. This is for good reason: We depend on realistic fear to protect us from harm. But when fear displaces our other capacities of mind and heart, we become unable to recognize when a challenge that stands before us is compelling and manageable.
We need our fear. But we also need our love, our desire to serve and our sense of sacred possibility to guide us to do the sacred work that is ours to do.