Don’t let fears silence voices of hope

Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael is community chaplain with Jewish Family & Children’s Service in St. Louis.

By Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael

“Stop,” I’ve said. “You’re climbing too high!” 

“Don’t play with that, it’s sharp!” 

“You could get lost in those woods!” 

I’ve even said, to my embarrassment, things the really boil down to, “Careful! Don’t try that, the cost of failure is too high.” 

A little bit of experience with the world can be a disheartening thing. I’ve seen things go badly. I know how easily a broken bone (or more) can happen. Parents and mentors are often focused on keeping the next generation safe and secure. I know that when I say those things, I am not imagining with my children what excitement lies at the top of the wall or deep in the woods. I am weighing the risks, but not against the possibilities that my children see. 

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This dynamic takes place on a national and sacred level in Parashat Shelakh. The Children of Israel stand on the edge of the Land of Israel, making final preparations to enter it.  They have some experience in the world. They have experienced slavery and freedom; fear of the Egyptian army, and relief at their escape, hunger and thirst in the desert; and anxiety and hope learning to live as God’s people in an empty desert. 

And now, one more change is being asked of them. In preparation, they send 12 scouts into the land to discover “the country, what it is, and the people who dwell in it, whether they are strong or weak, many or few; and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it is good or bad, and what sort of cities they dwell in …” 

These scouts come back after 40 days and report that the land itself is fertile and good, but that “it is all for nothing, the people that dwell in the land are strong and the cities are fortified … we seemed like grasshoppers compared to them, and that is how they saw us.” 

They urge the people to give up hope of entering the land. They even wish that they had died in the desert or could go back to slavery in Egypt. They fear that this is the end of the road and that there is no future in the Promised Land to offer to their children. 

“We will fall by the sword, and our wives and children will become captives of war,” they lament.

Even in the biblical context of Divine promise and miraculous rescue, there are good reasons to have some compassion on these scouts and to understand the fears of the Children of Israel. They know what fear looks like and, as former slaves, they know all too well the consequences that failure might hold for their children. They know how many of them never made it out of Egypt, and the urge to keep their children safe tells them not to try for more than they can safely achieve. 

But this urge carries a price. It causes them to weigh the risks without daring to hope for the rewards. Even when shown the incredible blessings the land has in store, they can only say, “It is all for nothing.” 

God responds with frustration and rage, not understanding how these fears could overshadow the hopes God envisioned for Israel. God expresses a feeling of personal betrayal and hurt that God’s own promises seem impossible to the generation of the desert, even after the miracles and wonders that have brought them there. God leaves them with the punishment that this generation will never see the fulfillment of these promises and will no longer be given the opportunity to chase after hope. 

But God also leaves them with what is perhaps the greatest blessing possible: “Your young children, who you said would become spoils of war, I will bring them there, and they will know the land that you despaired of.” 

It is our challenge to weigh our fears and assess our risks in the context of hope. It should be our blessing to know that even when our ability to hope falls short, the generations that will come after us, our children, students and friends, will experience the blessings that we don’t yet know how to strive for.