Drash on Sh'lach L'cha
Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black
Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism
East Kew, Victoria
There is much in this parasha, which starts with sending the spies to reconnoitre the land of Canaan, home, as we are told, to the Anakites, Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Ammorites and Canaanites, to work out the best way to conquer it. They bring back an oversized bunch of grapes, so big it needs to be carried between two people, demonstrating graphically the fertility of the land – used today as the Israel tourist board logo.
All twelve are in agreement about the richness of the land of milk and honey – and about the big, strong inhabitants. They reported that they lived in large, fortified cities (13:28). On the material, measurable facts, they all concurred. And that was the mission they had been asked to fulfil.
Then Caleb took it a step further – and perhaps, in retrospect, he should have left the strategic analysis to Moses! Caleb made a leap of faith. Let us go up, and we shall overcome them, he said. At this, the other spies publically disagreed: We can’t attack them for they are stronger than us (and we must have looked like grasshoppers to them, and that’s what we felt like – 13:33b). The Israelites were scared by this report, and complained against Moses and Aaron – if only we had died in Egypt or in this wilderness – and they resolved to return to Egypt! We could learn from this not to be selective in our memories – did they really want to return to slavery? Besides, how would they cross the Sea of Reeds which had apparently parted miraculously to let them through and then closed again behind them? They should also be careful what they wish for! God’s punishment for their lack of faith is that they will now indeed die in the desert, in the forty years it will take before they are ready to conquer the land.
One point worth noting is that Joshua is not mentioned there – in fact we would assume he was one of the other eleven spies who all disagreed with Caleb. But now, when he hears the Israelites reaction, Joshua appears in the story – perhaps he realises they have gone too far. Now he and Caleb exhort the people, saying that ‘If pleased with us, God will bring us into the land – only don’t rebel’. But the people miss this last opportunity, threatening to stone the two instead, and now it is too late. Only Joshua and Caleb will survive to enter the land – indeed, Joshua will take over from Moses and, eventually, lead the people into Canaan.
A few weeks ago, as we opened the ark at Shavuot, we inserted ‘Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanun, erech apayim v’rav chesed ve-emet...’, as we do at each Festival (Mishkan T’filah World Union Edition, p.486). This is a powerful link to the High Holydays, which are now already on the horizon once more! And these striking words are referred to in this parashah. So, angry and frustrated with the Israelites, God plans to disown them all, and start again with Moses. Moses reminds God of the description first found in Exodus 34:6, when, after the Golden Calf episode, God wants to destroy the Israelites. ‘Eternal One, slow to anger, abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression, yet not remitting all punishment; visiting the sins of the parents on the children to the third and fourth generations – Pardon this people through your great lovingkindness, as you have forgiven them ever since Egypt.’
And then, the words that lift our hearts as Yom Kippur draws to its close: Vayomer Adonai: Salachti kidvarekha – And God says: I have forgiven them as you have said.’ However, there is a dramatic and devastating rider, as I mentioned above, and it would be worth remembering as we go away from Yom Kippur that ‘Salachti kidvarecha’ is by no means a full reprieve! ‘However, none of these people will live to see the land I have promised, except Caleb, who remained loyal to me (14:24 – note that Joshua has been left out again, although he does appear in the repeat 14:30).
If we equate ‘entering the land’ to ‘Tikkun Olam – healing the world’ – the need for which is clearly getting more pressing day by day - then we can learn that we must keep working at it – even though, in part because of our own carelessness and lack of faith, we ourselves will never live to see it.