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The Key to The Promised Land

Sh’lach L’cha

Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

This week’s Torah portion holds the famous story of the spies that Moses sent to scout the Promised Land at the Eternal’s command. For forty days and forty nights, twelve representatives of the tribes are to spy on the land, bring back its fruit and report their findings to the people. Upon their return, two of them, Caleb and Joshua encourage the people to enter and conquer the land. The other ten, however, warn the people not to do so. Fear spreads throughout the community. The people cry, revolt against Moses, turn around and start heading back to Egypt. But in response to their lack of faith, God condemns the Hebrews over the age of twenty to never enter the land, and instead, to die in the wilderness over forty years of wandering, one year for each day of scouting.

The report the spies give to the community is most fascinating. All twelve of them together state that “…the land…does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. The people who inhabit the country, however, are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large…” [Num. 13:27-28] But then, the group of ten continues saying: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we… 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.” [Num. 13:32-33] There is a great contradiction between the two testimonies. In the first they share fact by showing the gigantic fruit they brought back, the abundance of pomegranates and figs and the “single cluster of grapes [that] had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them.” [Num.13:23] But then they make up the story that the land “devours its settlers.” Again with fact: the people of the land were powerful and lived in large fortified cities. But then fiction: the people there are “stronger than we are.

Why is that? What is it about our human nature that is so powerfully reflected in this passage? What is mirrored here is the reality that, in fact, all of us fall prey to this same pattern. There is “what is,” and then there is what we report about “what is.” In truth, we rarely are present to what is. Instead, what we have is the story we tell about what is. What we have is the report. The mind has difficulties being with what is, because it needs our experience to conform to the inner script it has created about how things should be. Our mind needs to make meaning out of any situation in a way that will support the narrative it has constructed about our life, our world and the people in it. And when what is does not agree with our inner story, the mind resists, wanting our experience to be different than it is. It is this resistance to what is that causes us to suffer.

All twelve spies saw and experienced the same land. But only Caleb and Joshua were able to transcend the inner slave narrative through which the other ten interpreted their experience, and see the land for what it was, just as it was. The ten still carried with them that slave story in which they saw themselves as small, insignificant, weak, with their life being of little worth: “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” They never really saw the Promised Land because they resisted what they saw. True, the reality of the Promised Land was complex. Even there, there was light and shadow; milk, honey and giant fruit on one hand, and powerful people who inhabited large fortified cities. Perhaps, the ten spies expected the Promised Land to be all milk and honey; all light. Don’t we all? But this is what I love about Torah: even the Promised Land still has light and darkness.

Through my spiritual lens, I see the biblical image of the Promised Land as representing enlightenment. Perhaps we are to learn from our Torah portion that entering the Promised Land can only happen when we are able to let go of our need to make everything mean something, to no longer let the mind lay its narrative over reality, and to accept what is exactly as it is, in all its love-filled light and all its awe-full darkness, in its empty nakedness. Radical acceptance is our key to the Promised Land.