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Shelaḥ-Lekha - Perfection

Numbers 13:1-15:41

“The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” - Numbers 13:32-33

 

P’shat – Explanation

This passage reports on one of the great turning points in biblical history. In it we learn the reason the Israelites were condemned to wander in the desert for forty years before they could enter the Promised Land. 

Anyone familiar with Middle East geography knows how close Egypt and Israel are to one another. The distance between the two countries is only 380 miles. Today one could drive it in about six hours, and fly from Cairo to Jerusalem in under forty minutes. For generations, therefore, people wondered: how could it possibly have taken forty long years for the Israelites to reach the Promised Land? 

The answer, revealed in this Torah passage, lies in their massive failure of nerve. According to the text, the Israelites actually reached the Promised Land after only two years of traveling. Unfortunately, when they arrived, they had no faith in themselves or in God’s promise. They insisted that Moses send spies to scout out the land first—to see whether or not the soil was fertile, who lived there, and how much resistance they were liable to encounter when entering the land God had promised them.

When the twelve scouts returned, a vast majority of ten reported they were too weak, small, insignificant and powerless to conquer the land before them. They sowed so much fear and self-doubt that the community despaired and rejected their God-given opportunity. As a result, God condemned the Israelites to turn around and wander in the Sinai desert for thirty-eight more years, until the entire generation of scouts had died out and a new, tougher, more courageous and resilient generation reared in the wilderness would march into the land of Canaan and conquer it for themselves.

The saying in Mishnah Sotah 1:7, “By the measure that a person measures, so is he measured,” reflects this very notion. Because the Israelites saw themselves as weak, small, and vulnerable, they presumed their enemies saw them the same way.

 

D’rash – Kaplan’s Insight

“We make out of life what we think it is, because we think of life what we make of it.”

- Mordecai M. Kaplan

Kaplan understood the profound life truth that the meaning of our experiences is formed as much by our perception of those experiences as by any external reality.

In more ways than we often acknowledge, perception is everything. Motivational speakers from every walk of life have taught that if we can conceive and believe in something, we can achieve it, because what we ultimately make out of life is largely dependent upon our beliefs about ourselves. Henry Ford is believed to have coined the phrase, “If you think you can, or think you can’t, you are right,” which is exactly what happened to the Israelites.

As Kaplan warned, self-perceptions concerning our limitations in life, fueled by insecurities, can take on a power of their own, often becoming the very reason we fail to accomplish what we could have in this life. He once articulated this fundamental human challenge by saying, “To know what we are is a prerequisite to knowing what we ought to be.”[i]  In other words, unless we assess ourselves realistically—strengths and weaknesses—we will never truly understand all that we might become.

 

D’rash – A Personal Reflection

Acting Like a First-Class Passenger

There’s a well-known Hasidic story about a poor man named Yankel who lived in nineteenth-century Warsaw. One day he unexpectedly receives a train ticket and invitation; his wealthy cousin in Lodz has asked him to visit for the holidays. He is excited; he’s never taken a train before. He arrives at the train station clutching his ticket without any idea where to go.  First, he spots several well-dressed individuals; being poor, he knows he doesn’t belong with them. Then he notices in the far corner of the waiting room a group of vagrants with packs on their shoulders, looking around uncomfortably at the other passengers, and decides: this must be where he belongs. He meanders over to their part of the room. All the first-class passengers board, the vagrants sit waiting, and all of a sudden, when the whistle blows and the train begins to move, the vagrants quickly run and jump aboard the baggage car with Yankel following in pursuit. Seconds later he finds himself lying in a dark car underneath a pile of suitcases, feeling the bumps and heat of the baggage car while still clutching his ticket. Suddenly the compartment door flies open. A burly conductor, flanked by two policemen, begins moving suitcases and bags until the three spot poor Yankel and some of his newfound friends.

            “Can I see your tickets?” the large conductor sneers.

            Yankel meekly holds out the sweat-soaked ticket he has gripped all day and the conductor begins to laugh. “Young man,” he barks, “You have a first-class ticket! What are you doing here lying with these bums in baggage? When you have a first-class ticket, you ought to act like a first-class passenger!”

            The Israelites were God’s “first-class passengers” on a ride of liberation from enslavement in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. But like Yankel, they couldn’t see themselves for who they were. Instead of acknowledging they held first-class tickets to a new a glorious future, they saw themselves as weaklings holding tickets to nowhere. They then projected that same ill-conceived notion on the Canaanites, asserting, “And so we must have looked to them as well.”

This is the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Talmud Ta’anit 29a teaches, “The Holy One blessed be He said to them: You wept without cause, so I shall give you a lasting cause for weeping.” And so, they wandered for another generation in the wilderness.

 

 

 

Sun, June 26 2022 27 Sivan 5782