The Faulty Lens of Fear
Parashat Shelach L’cha, Numbers 13:1–15:41
by Ben Weisman, Sha’arei Shalom, Cary, NC
Three weeks have now passed on the Jewish calendar since the triumphant highs of receiving the Torah—and later the Ruach—on Shavuot. Beginning three weeks from now, we will experience the most tragic lows of the Jewish calendar—three weeks of mourning that culminate in the fast of Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month Av. The most famous tragedies of Tisha B’Av are the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, but according to the Mishna, it is also the anniversary of a tragedy narrated in this week’s parasha: “On the ninth of Av, it was decreed that our ancestors should not enter the land” (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6).
Parashat Shelach L’cha opens with the familiar story of twelve spies, one man from each of Israel’s twelve tribes, who are sent to explore the land of Canaan. We are given a list of each man’s name, followed by the seemingly random comment that Moshe changed the name of Hoshea Ben Nun to Yehoshua, meaning “the Lord saves.”
Because the Torah rarely gives unnecessary details, our sages see any seemingly random comment as a chance to discover a deeper meaning. Perhaps Moshe alters Yehoshua’s name to strengthen him on his journey and remind him that salvation comes from God. It makes sense that Yehoshua would need extra strength to oppose the other spies who, contrary to God’s assurances of victory, tell the people of Yisrael that they will be defeated by the people of the land.
But this leads us to another question. While it is mentioned that Yehoshua joins Calev in opposing the other ten spies, it is clear in the text that Calev is the main spokesperson. If Yehoshua needs the strength of his name change, how much more does Calev need strength to speak the truth in the face of opposition? Where did he find strength?
After the list of the spies’ names, we are given a list of the locations they scout. Among these locations—just before Eshkol where they harvest a giant cluster of grapes that takes two men to carry—we find Hevron. The sages tell us that Calev turns aside to the cave of Machpelach in Hevron, the resting place of the Patriarchs, to pray (Sotah 34b). Perhaps there he recalls God’s promise to Avraham, that God would give this land to Avraham and his descendants.
Having been reminded of God’s salvation, his faithfulness to the Patriarchs, his miracles during the Exodus from Mitzrayim (Egypt), and his promise to give the land of Canaan to the people of Yisrael, Calev and Yehoshua are able to see, with eyes of faith, the good land that God has given and to trust in his promise to grant victory over their enemies. The other ten spies, however, are blinded by fear. They see the size of the land’s produce, but they focus more on the size of the land’s inhabitants. “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Num 13:33). How striking that they give voice to their negative self-perceptions and the negative perceptions they imagine others must have about them!
Commenting on the book of Eicha (Lamentations), which we read on Tisha B’Av in remembrance of the destruction of the Temple, our sages find something curious in the acrostic patterns. The first word of each verse of chapter 2 begins with a letter of the Aleph Bet, from Aleph to Tav, but the letter Peh is placed before Ayin (rather than after Ayin where it belongs in the alphabetical order). Our sages tell us that these backwards letters remind us of the backwards behavior of the ten spies, who report with their Peh (mouth) without seeing with their Ayin (eye) (Sanhedrin 104b). Ultimately the rebellion that led to the destruction of both Temples on Tisha B’Av can be traced back to the rebellion of the ten spies on Tisha B’Av.
How can we say that the spies speak without seeing? Of course, they survey the land and even bring back some of its fruit, but because their view of reality is so warped by fear, they cannot truly see what is in front of them. They cannot see the same reality that Calev and Yehoshua see through the lens of God’s faithfulness to the Patriarchs and to their own generation. The majority of the people of Yisrael choose to view the world in the same way as the ten spies and, tragically, their fear of death becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as that whole generation dies during the forty years of wandering in the desert.
After fearfully accepting the negative report of the spies, the people refuse to march onward and they reject the land God is giving them. It is striking that their first thought is to go back to Mitzrayim. When God freed Yisrael from slavery to Pharaoh, he did not free them to be alone, but to serve him. When God gave the Torah at Shavuot, it was like a wedding ceremony, but when Yisrael rejects the land on Tisha B’Av, it is like they are rejecting God. This point is driven home in the final paragraph of the parasha, which is also the third paragraph of the Shema. God reiterates that he freed Yisrael from Mitzrayim to be their God. He also warns not to “prostitute yourselves by chasing after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes” (Num 15:39). The idea that abandoning the love and faithfulness of God for the fear and bondage of other masters is like prostitution or adultery is a theme repeated throughout the Prophets.
As we approach an occasion like Tisha B’Av, the objective is not simply to mourn an ancient tragedy. It is a time to reflect on past mistakes in the lives of our ancestors and in our own lives. If we find that we are following after our eyes and seeing the world through the warped vision of fear, let us draw inspiration from our ancestors to view the world through the lens of God’s love and faithfulness, and to trust in his salvation.