June 2018, Parshat Shlach

Dear friends,

This week’s Parsha is Parshat Shlach. As the book of Bamidbar progresses we see that the desert experience seems to grow in drama week on week. From the spies, seraph serpents and the rebellion of Korach it sometimes seems that the Jews in the desert never stopped complaining or causing trouble!

However, the commentators say that the generation of people that lived through the 40 years of wandering in the dessert were a righteous bunch and instead of the mainly peaceful times that they experienced, the Torah records the exceptional and unusual occurrences in the desert to bring forth lessons.

Parshat Shlach is no exception. In this week’s Parsha the Jewish people in the desert send spies out on a recognisance mission to the land of Israel which they had been promised. Before setting off on their Mossad-style mission, the spies are tasked with finding out a number of important pieces of information such as whether the cities are walled or not, whether the people there are few or numerous and whether the land is good. They were also instructed to bring back from fruit from the land. The famous commentator Rashi says that G-d struck down a number of people in the land of Canaan so that when the spies would arrive the locals would be preoccupied with burying their people and mourning and would not notice the spies.

However, this soon backfired as the spies saw the funeral possessions and were terrified! When the spies return to the camp of Israel in the desert, they slander the land of Israel. They report back that the people in Israel are mighty and fierce and live in un-walled cities and they show the fruit of the land (which is huge) and they claim: “this is a land that devours its inhabitants!”

Only Yehoshua and Calev speak well of the land of Israel saying it is exceedingly good and they will be able to conquer it. The camp of Israel begins to cry out in fear and they decide that they do not want to enter the land of Israel and G-d declares that the Jewish people wandering in the desert will not be the people to enter the land and instead will spend 40 years wondering in the desert, one day for each year they spent spying the land. Rather, it will be their children will be the ones to enter the land.

While the incident is well known, and while many of the observations made by the spies are true, the reasons behind them were problematic. In part, while there was some fear felt by the people about the land of Israel, they were primarily worried about leaving their comfortable lives in the desert.
This was linked to the fact that they had become accustomed to a life in which they received daily Manna from G-d, they didn’t have to work and all their needs were accounted for and provided for. This led them to an attitude in which they expected things to be provided for them without working and as such were unprepared to leave the comfort of their desert life!

The incident with the spies teaches us many lessons. While being grateful for what we have and our opportunities is certainly a message, the fact that we may need to leave our comfort zones to develop ourselves is another lesson. While the generation that entered the desert was not the generation who left and they died out during the 40 years of travel, this was in part due to their reluctance to change their ways and be ready for a new experience.
Scientific research suggests that to break an old habit and form new behaviors it takes 30 days. But habits are also patterns of behavior and it is the breaking of patterns that are the key to breaking the habits themselves. Usually there is a clear trigger to starts the pattern. The Jews in the desert had a pattern in which they were unwilling to engage with the mundane day to day aspect of their lives, such as gathering food, setting up shelter and searching for water. These were provided by G-d to the Jewish people.

However, when G-d reflects on the goodness that was being given to the Jewish people and the complaints and lack of gratitude that was shown, G-d decided that change was necessary.

One of the most famous prayers in Judaism is the Modeh Ani prayer in which one show gratitude to G-d and thankfulness for being given another day to live. This mini meditation that we say each morning, while still lying in bed, is there to get us into the mindset that, yesterday was yesterday, today we start again a new day afresh!. The generation that left Egypt couldn’t leave their behind their slavery and even as free people acted as dependent and unable to sustain themselves.

The message from this week’s Parsha is therefore clear: Let us be grateful for the blessings we experience each day, but at the end of the day, without putting in our own effort and labor, we cannot grow.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Gabi