Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
They Warned Moses And They Were Right
This week’s Torah portion begins with the famous episode of the spies. Much has been said and written about this episode as it is a turning point in the unfolding drama of our exodus from Egypt and our march toward the Promised Land. This year, after reading many rabbinic commentaries on these verses, I find myself understanding this story from a totally new and different perspective; as a consequence, seem to be in complete disagreement with the interpretations I have studied so far.
Some of you might recall that Moses sends twelve leaders (one elder from each tribe) to scout the Promised Land before crossing into Canaan. Upon returning 40 days later, the elders give their report to Moses in front of the entire nation of Israel. They display the enormous fruits they brought back; a cluster of grapes so big it took two of them to carry it on a pole. Ten of them proceed to say that though the land they saw was flowing with milk and honey; the people of the land were strong and powerful — giants in fact — living in fortified cities. The land, they reported, devours its people — our sages explain — because of never-ending wars. They warned Moses and the people not to go in. But two of the “spies” took the opposite stance and urged the people to go ahead; to have faith, and conquer the land. Traditional interpretations of this story chastise the ten for being such “glass-half-empty” downers, while championing the optimism of the two in the minority. But — they were wrong.
Why? Because what the ten elders knew, was that the Israelites were not spiritually ready to be immersed in such a society; that they would lose themselves there, their spirit crushed again; this time not by harsh slave labor, but by the temptations of a life of riches. In this society agriculture provided an abundance of produce — in excess, in fact. People had genetically modified grapes to grow them into giant clusters. Cattle, too, was abundant, and milk products flooded the market. Even the insect world was manipulated to allow both for abundant harvests and excessive honey production. Can you imagine the shock of stepping into such a land when all you have ever known is slavery?
Those ten leaders knew that the Hebrews slaves, overcome with desires, would go unconscious in such seductive surroundings; they would lose their newly acquired moral compass and fall prey to the temptations of materialistic pursuit. Without first a strong spiritual and moral anchor, without having spent more time secluded in the wilderness, the Hebrews’ resolve to the one God, their embrace of the laws of Moses, would collapse, and the faith of Abraham would be lost forever. The elders’ concern wasn’t that the Israelites would be defeated by these giants who lived in fortified gated cities. Rather, they were concerned they would become like them, overweighed gluttonous war-mongers focused on amassing, bigger, better, more material wealth by plundering earth resources.
We, too, need to remember to create spaces in our lives that promote our re-sourcing at the silent center of our inner wilderness. And though there are many ways to accomplish this; belonging to spiritual communities that foster cultivating such inner wilderness is, powerfully, one of them. In such communities one is able to find authentic relationships, support amidst isolation, spiritual nourishment, and moral strength. They help affirm our own moral compass, our own deeply cherished values, that we may express them in our lives. They keep us connected to the possibility of a world that speaks of compassion, love, peace and tolerance, and where the sustainability of our planet and all its life forms is seen as sacred. The Israelites had not yet constituted themselves into such a community. They didn’t have the spiritual tools to face the world of Canaan. And though it is going to cost thirty-eight more years of wandering, and the death of a whole generation; there was no viable alternative but to take the time and space necessary to establish spiritual grounding. The ten elders were right.
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