Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Sh’lach L’cha 5781

The best parts of life are the surprises.

Here we have a story of surprise. The scouts are surprised that the Promised Land is a frightening place, with looming giants. Why would Gd, whom they trusted, promise them a land like this, with these terrifying people in it?

Caleb and Joshua are surprised that the other ten scouts bring back this report, because what they saw was a land flowing with milk and honey, a land that is entirely conquerable with God’s help.

Gd is shocked that the tens scouts could possibly doubt Gd’s power after the miracles of the splitting of the sea, of the manna, of Mount Sinai, and most importantly, the miracle of defeating Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler in the region, with the ten plagues. What possibly could these scouts be afraid of if they had Gd on their side?
Moses and Gd are also stunned and disappointed with the people, who raise their voices in a loud cry that they should never have left Egypt and immediately start planning a return there, to slavery, just after they start stoning Joshua and Caleb and possibly Gd’s cloud of glory as well.

Everyone in this story is surprised.

But it all seems entirely predictable and preventable. Not only could Gd have prepared and reassured them for what they were to encounter in the Promised Land, as you point out, Madeleine, but the whole idea of a scouting expedition was unnecessary. Don’t you scout something you’re unsure about? This was the Promised Land. Gd promised them this land. Couldn’t they just trust the promise and enter the land with Gd at their lead? What was the need to scout it first?

“Shlach Lecha,” Gd says to Moses. “Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people.” That’s how the first verse of the parasha is usually translated. But that’s not exactly what it says. Gd doesn’t say to Moses “Send men to scout the land” Gd says to Moses “Send lecha—for yourself—men to scout the land…” What does this lecha, for yourself, mean?

In the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 34b, Reish Lakish said that the “lecha” means: “Send them yourself by your discretion, not by my command.” In other words, Resh Lakish is arguing that the scouting expedition was Moses’s idea, not Gd’s. He goes further to say “It was good in the eyes of Moses but it was not good in the eyes of Gd.” By this theory, Gd understood that the whole idea of scouting the land was problematic because it implied doubt. And Gd probably knew that the scouts would see things that terrified them. So why didn’t Gd stop Moses?

Rashi points out that verse 13:3 explicitly states that Moses sent the people “by Gd’s command,” which Rashi argues means that at very least Moses had Gd’s consent—it may have been Moses’s initiative but Gd “did not stop him.”

Perhaps, as you suggest, Madeleine, this was a test of the people to see if they had the mettle for the battle that lay ahead. Perhaps it was a test of their trust in Gd. Could they see frightening things and still trust in Gd’s power to prevail? That’s what Joshua and Caleb saw. The other ten scouts and the people abysmally failed that test, choosing instead to return to slavery. That moment is considered one of the lowest in all of Jewish history—our tradition tells us that the date on which the people cried and begged to go back to Egypt was the 9th of Av, presaging, and maybe even causing, the many calamities that would befall our people on that date, most notably the destruction of both the first and second Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and 70 CE.

If you recall, another Torah portion has the word “Lecha” in the title, and it is the same construction as we find here. “Lech Lecha,” Gd says to Abraham, sending him on his mission to the Promised Land to start the Jewish people. “Go forth” is how it’s usually translated, but there too it more accurately means something like “Go for yourself.”

The similarity between the commands “Shlach Lecha” and “Lech Lecha” is not the only connection between the two portions. On their mission, the scouts retraced Abraham’s steps through the Negev and to Hebron, the place where Abraham built an altar to Gd more than 400 years earlier, after Gd promised the land to Abraham’s offspring forever. In fact, in the Talmud, also on Sotah 34b, the Rabbis imagine that when the scouts get to Hebron, Caleb goes to the tomb of Abraham and prostrates himself there, praying for the help of the patriarchs to save him from the designs of the other ten scouts.

So what does Lech Lecha have to do with Shlach Lecha? Abraham’s journey was all about trust in Gd. Abraham had to leave everything he knew behind to follow Gd’s promise into the land, and he did. Now more than 400 years later his descendants receive a similar command and they don’t have the same trust.

Today, many Jews do not believe in Gd, never mind trust Gd to lead them into difficult territory. Madeleine, you brought us a modern response to the question of why Gd would be so difficult for us to perceive if Gd is there, in the words of Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovitz: “Responsibility requires freedom, but God’s convincing presence would undermine the freedom of human decision. God hides in human responsibility and human freedom.”

So if that’s true, what do we do when we face the unknown? How do we move forward with both trust and responsibility when we’re afraid?

I think one answer lies in the idea of surprise. Every day is full of surprise. When we shift into a mode of wonder, when we look out at the world with awe at the grandeur that surrounds us, we find ourselves more able to trust what we can’t control and take responsibility for what we can.

Abraham Joshua Heschel advises: “Part company with preconceived notions, suppress your leaning to reiterate and to know in advance of your seeing, try to see the world for the first time with eyes not dimmed by memory or volition, and you will quickly detect that…the ineffable,” he says, “inhabits the magnificent and the common, the grandiose and the tiny facts of reality alike. Some people sense this quality at distant intervals in extraordinary events; others sense it in the ordinary events, in every fold, in every nook; day after day, hour after hour. To them things are bereft of triteness… They hear the stillness that crowds the world in spite of our noise, in spite of our greed. Slight and simple as things may be—a piece of paper, a morsel of bread, a word, a sigh—they hide and guard a never-ending secret: A glimpse of God? Kinship with the spirit of being?”

This is what Abraham sensed and this is what the ten scouts did not. This is our best bet for living in a world in which we cannot see the future and must both take responsibility and trust in the unknown. In Heschel’s words: “The search of reason ends at the shore of the known; on the immense expanse beyond it, only the sense of the ineffable can glide.”

Shabbat Shalom.