Parashat Shelach Lecha 5778

Rabbi Monique Mayer – 8 June 2018

How do you respond to a narrative that preys on fears and threatens to undermine what you’re trying to achieve? Well, certainly don’t do it like Caleb!

In this week’s Torah portion, twelve representatives (spies) are sent to scout out the land of Canaan and gather information. They must answer specific questions: Are the people strong or weak, few or many? Is the land good or bad? Are the towns open or walled? Is the soil rich or poor, wooded or not? Moses also instructs them to bring back samples of the local produce. In short, their mission is to simply collect data for developing strategies for taking possession of the land.

When the men return, they report the land flows with milk and honey, say the people are powerful, the cities are fortified and very large, and they mention the indigenous populations in the area, including the Amalekites who attacked the people from the rear after the Exodus. At this point, the people are clearly starting to mutter and murmur because Caleb has to hush them (Num 14:30), yet there was still the possibility of changing the mood of the crowd with the right approach. Unfortunately, Caleb misreads the situation. He disregards the fact that the Amalekites are making everyone nervous, assuming the Israelites have his faith and confidence. He says, Alo na’aleh v’yarashnu otah, ki yakhol nukhal lah – “Let’s go up (into the land) and possess it, for we surely can do it.” And then everything falls apart. The fearmongers declare: “The country is one that devours its settlers”, “We saw giants (Nephilim)” and “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them”. By the time the “report” is finished, the people are wailing and weeping, railing against Moses and Aaron, and talking about going back to Egypt. Moses and Aaron fall on their faces.

Joshua now tries to calm the people: Eretz tovah m’od m’od – The land is very, very good. Don’t rebel. Have faith. Have no fear because God is with us. But Joshua’s words only further provoke the mob who threaten to stone himself and Caleb. In the end, God is forced to intervene and put a stop to the situation.

I sometimes wonder how things might have played out differently if Caleb and the others had listened to the people and their concerns. What if they’d recognised that the Israelites were scared and needed reassurance, not what seemed to be platitudes? What if, instead of ignoring their fears, Caleb asked them to articulate them? Perhaps in this scenario, the people would have answered, “The Amalekites are strong, and dangerous and attacked us before. How can you make us go there?”. Then Caleb – in his wisdom – could have reminded the people that Joshua and his men defeated the Amalekites before and would do it again. He could go on to refresh their memory of how God visited plagues on Pharaoh, brought the people out of Egypt, parted the sea for them–something they never thought possible – and gave them the Law at Sinai. As each miraculous element of the Israelites’ journey was repeated to them, the people would slowly remember who they were, what their relationship was with God, how they felt safe and looked after, enabling them to see a future full of possibility instead of only danger.

When we are trying to bring people on a journey with us, and win over their hearts, we must heed their concerns. Real and even imagined fears can derail the positive changes we seek, or block the direction we hope to take. Stephen Covey, in his 7 Habits of Highly Successful People wrote, “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. In order to move the Israelites forward, they needed to be reminded of their past, in light of their present experience, and then encouraged to see how they could build toward a future. How much the moreso might we – unlike Caleb – seek first to understand: in our personal relationships, when looking to resolve a conflict, or helping our communities to craft a vision for the future.

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