I think it’s fair to say that just about everybody knows that the Israelites were condemned to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, a biblical generation. With the exceptions of Joshua and Caleb, all those who had witnessed the redemption at the sea would die without ever setting foot into the Promised Land. What led to their life sentence of ceaseless wandering, however, is less well known. This week’s parshah tells that story.
The setting is clear: Israel is on the verge of entering the Land of which they and their ancestors have spoken and dreamed. The moment is pregnant with excitement and trepidation. Moses, on directions from God, has sent in an advance team, one scout from each of the 12 tribes. And now, after 40 days of reconnoitering the land, they return with pomegranates and figs, with a cluster of grapes so large it takes two men to carry it. They tell of a Land of extraordinary wonders, of an abundance of wondrous natural resources, a Land that truly “flows with milk and honey.” But they also tell of fortress cities and the inhabitants of the Land, of a people whose physical size is both intimidating and daunting. The people respond with cries of fear. They want to go back to Egypt. Moses and Aaron are beside themselves (once again). Only Joshua and Caleb, two of the 12 scouts, want to continue on with their sacred journey. For this they will merit the reward of eventually crossing the Jordan River. As for everyone else, they will neither enter the Land nor return to Egypt. They will drift aimlessly in the wilderness of Sinai until they die.
The question is why? What was their sin? What was so grievous that prohibited an entire people from ever reaching their destination?
And perhaps even more to the point, what lesson is Torah trying to teach us?
The obvious answer is that the people lost faith in God. After everything that God had done for them, after all the miracles and wonders, to assume that they would fall prey to this next obstacle indicated that they had learned nothing. Some will blame the other 10 scouts for their negative and pessimistic, perhaps dishonest report of the Land, and of course, for the people’s willingness to believe them and not Joshua and Caleb. But in this story, in particular in the scouts’ recounting of their observations, lies another possibility.
“The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size … and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”
On this passage, the Kotzker Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Morgenstern of Kotzk, reacts: “This was one of the sins of the scouts, ‘we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves.’ While this is possible to understand, but ‘so we must have looked to them?’ What’s with this? What do you care how you appear to the eyes of others?”
In other words, their sin wasn’t simply that they lost faith or that the scouts had misrepresented what they had seen. Indeed, in another comment on the same verse, the Kotzker Rebbe is clear that the scouts had actually “spoken the truth” in their report. Their failure wasn’t even that they had low self-esteem, that they saw themselves as grasshoppers. For this they could be forgiven. Rather it was their preoccupation with how others saw them that was their sin.
In a text frequently attributed to the same Chasidic commentator, this perspective of a soulful integrity is more clearly spelled out: “If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.”
For Kotzk, the essence of one’s mission in life was to be true to oneself. Spiritual authenticity. The failure of that generation escaping Egypt was that they were incapable of self-reflection.
We are not so different. How often we see ourselves through the eyes of others. How easy it is for us to define ourselves in relation to the other. We wonder what he/she will think. We worry about how we look, as if somehow our appearance in the eyes of someone else is all that matters. But it is nothing more than another form of slavery, this preoccupation not with who we are but with how we think we are perceived.
Perhaps then the Israelites not being permitted to enter the Land was less a punishment and more “You’re not yet ready” to merit the privilege of dwelling in that sacred space? Perhaps, if we embrace the Kotzker’s perspective, the right to leave the wilderness and enter the Land is reserved only for those who have shed the shackles of slavery, especially the bonds we impose upon ourselves? Perhaps the faith our ancestors needed was the ability to believe in themselves? Perhaps this is what it really means to be free?
The name of this week’s Torah portion is often rendered simply as Shelach. It is the verb “to send.” In fact, however, the full name of the parshah is Shelach Lecha. The second word, lecha, albeit rarely translated is, I believe, instructive. Literally the phrase means “send to yourself” or “send for yourself.” This is how I interpret the phrase. No matter the task, no matter the challenge, the success of my mission depends entirely on how I see myself as being integral to its fulfillment. If my concern is focused on how I will appear, if my focus is on whom I will please or displease, then I act without integrity. Lest we forget, the opening words of this parshah — shelach lecha — is uttered in the singular. It speaks to you.
—Rabbi Steven Kushner