We have recently studied the Torah portion Shelah-Lecha, Numbers 13:1-15-41. God tells Moses to send a team of spies to scout out the Land that was promised to the Israelites; these are to be leading men from each of the twelve tribes, men of respect in their communities, hat the people look up to. Moses gives them their orders to scout the land: “What kind of country is this? Are the inhabitants strong or weak? Are the cities open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor?” Moses also asks for samples of the fruit of the land.
For forty days, the spies examine the land, picking up a huge cluster of grapes that they have to carry on a wooden beam. They return from their mission and tell Moses, “It is indeed an abundant land, but the cities are fortified,” and they speak of the various nationalities occupying the land. They continue, “We can’t attack these people, they’re stronger than we are,” and they claim to see the Nephilim, a race of beings mentioned in the sixth book of Genesis, “divine beings (who) cohabited with the daughters of men (Genesis 6:4).” The spies concluded, “(W)e looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”
Two of the spies, Joshua of the tribe of Ephraim and Caleb of the tribe of Judah, insist that, if they maintain their faith in God, the Israelites definitely can take on and beat the inhabitants, and bring them to the abundant land; but the Israelites, listening to their leaders, the men they trust, fall into a panic, crying, “If only we died in Egypt! Let’s go back to Egypt!”
Moses pleads with God to tur His wrath away from the people, who lost faith in Him and in themselves. God agrees, but as punishment, the Israelites would remain in exile for another forty years, until the generation that experienced slavery-and the slave mentality it engendered-dies; the exceptions would be Caleb and Joshua, the two spies who have faith they could take the land.
The next day, the Israelites prepare for battle against the inhabitants of the land, and Moses warns them not to; “The Lord is not in your midst…the Lord would not be with you.” The Israelites engage in battle and the inhabitants defeat them.
The spies are leaders of their tribes, men the community trusts and listens to; they come back and tell the people, “We’re inferior to the people we’re up against, we’re little crawling insects compared to them.” THIS is what the leaders of the community tell them; but two of the leaders, Caleb and Joshua, say, “Yes, we CAN beat them and take the land!” How many times have kids been told by adults they respect, parents, teachers, what have you, that you’re incapable of anything, you’re no good, you’re stupid, you’re useless? How many adults have told kids this stuff?
The Israelites go into a panic and scream to go back to Egypt, the land of their slavery and oppression; it’s no different from a battered spouse staying with their abuser, since they’re not confident in themselves in being out into the world away from their abuser. For their lack of faith in God and in themselves, the Israelites could not, would not enter the land of milk and honey that God promised their ancestors, the realm of prosperity and well-being. Ow often has our self-confidence prevented us from fulfilling our goals and dreams?
When the Israelites go into battle-after saying they could not take on the inhabitants and wanting to go back into Egypt-they are defeated; they went in, knowing they would be beaten, they only go through the motions; this has happened many times, when you know a project you’re compelled to do is going to fail.
The Haftorah portion is in Joshua, the second chapter; Joshua orders a team of spies to surveil the city of Jericho. The spies hide out in the home of the harlot Rahab, which is right on the city gates. Rahab tells the spies that the people of the city of terrified of the Israelites and for all that God has done for them-all the victories God has brought about for them. The spies tell Rahab to bring her whole family together into the house, and run a red cord on the window, as a sign of their safety-as long as she keeps their mission a secret.
A harlot, a woman supposedly looked down upon, is the hero of this story, protecting the Israelite spies and telling them of their power over their enemies. The cliché, “I didn’t know my own strength” comes to mind. Do we really know how powerful and strong we truly are? How could we ever know? This portion deals with issues of self-image and self-esteem, which I have been working on all my life and that is why this is my favorite.