Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
For forty days and forty nights the scouts sent by Moses gathered information and sampled the local fruits in the Promised Land. Upon their return, Caleb and Joshua encouraged the people to enter and conquer the land, but the other ten scouts warned them not to do it. Fear spread throughout the community as the people cried, revolted against Moses, and threatened to turn back toward Egypt. In response to their lack of faith, God swore that no Hebrew over the age of twenty would ever enter the Promised Land. Instead, they would die in the wilderness after forty years of wandering, one year for each day of scouting.
The report the scouts gave to the community is fascinating. All twelve of them together stated 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 ten nay-sayers continued, “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 fact and fiction in these two testimonies. First, they share a 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 the ten fearful scouts make up a story that the land “devours its settlers.” Again with fact: the people of the land are powerful and live in large fortified cities. But then fiction: the people there are “stronger than we are.”
What is it about our human nature that is so powerfully reflected in this passage? We all fall prey to this same pattern, telling stories about facts instead of letting the facts speak for themselves. There is “what is,” and then there is what we report about “what is.” In truth, we are rarely present to what is. Instead, we are constantly telling ourselves a story about what is. 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 doesn’t agree with our inner story, the mind resists. It wants our experience to be different from what is. It is this resistance to what is that causes us to suffer.
All twelve scouts 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 could see the land for what it was, just as it was. The other ten still carried with them a slave story in which they saw themselves as small, insignificant, and 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 was complex. Even in the Promised Land there was light and shadow: milk, honey, and giant fruit on one hand, and powerful people protected by fortified cities on the other. 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 has darkness as well as light.
Through my spiritual lens, I see the biblical image of the Promised Land as representing enlightenment. We all have a story about what enlightenment should look like, and as long as we hold on to that story we will continue to wander in the spiritual wilderness. Perhaps we are to learn from this Torah portion that entering the Promised Land can happen only when we no longer let the mind lay its narrative over reality and learn to accept what is, exactly as it is, in all its love-filled light and all its awe-full darkness, in its empty nakedness. This practice is called “radical acceptance,” and it’s the key that will unlock the gates of the fortified cities we have built around our hearts. Radical acceptance is our key to the Promised Land.