Listen to voices of wisdom and experience

Rabbi Dale Schreiber is a chaplain providing Jewish care  coordination for Pathways Hospice and Palliative Care and has a private practice, Renewal-in-Action, specializing in resiliency, spiritual development and compassion fatigue recovery.

By Rabbi Dale Schreiber

Shelach Lecha is the fourth portion in the fourth book of Torah, called Numbers or Bamidbar. God tells Moses, shelach lecha, send for yourself spies to check out what I’ve already told you is a good land. 

So Moses, at God’s request, deployed 12 sons of tribal leaders to give an accounting of the land. Moses tells them to go see for themselves whether the land was good or not, whether there were urbanites or nomads, fortifications or not, forests or plains. Additionally he implored, cause yourself to be courageous, be strong, and bring back proof of the land’s fruitfulness.  

After 40 days, the 12 scouts returned and issued a report with disastrous results triggering a cascade of anger, recriminations and retributions for everyone involved: Israelites, Moses, God. Instead of moving toward a landed lifestyle, the entire Israelite community was sentenced to wander for the next 38 years until an entire generation of people over the age of 20 was destined to die with only two exceptions; Joshua and Caleb.  

Their minority reports encouraging the camp to move forward ignited an angry, violent rebellion that ended as many of our narratives end, with an angry God and an overwhelmed Moses. 

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The scouts did report the land as abundantly good, as God said, efes – but! Ten of the 12 scouts were traumatized by what they saw and reported they were diminished in their own eyes.  

Modern commentators have asked how much of their conflict was simply fear of the unknown and how much was anchored in skepticism about God’s ability to ensure their victory. The jury is still out, but I have wondered how the outcome might have changed Jewish history had that desert community been able to process their experience and move forward.   

Twenty-five years ago, our son, about to lead the congregation in prayer and Torah for this portion as a bar mitzvah, called me over and said, “I’m going to throw up.” He didn’t say I think I’m going to, he was sure of it. I borrowed cloth napkins from the kitchen and, as calmly as I could, told him that if he did, we would clean it up and he would proceed. I sat with those napkins on my lap through his welcoming invocation, the musical warm-ups, and midpoint in the chanting of the morning blessings he began to twirl his tzitzit, the fringes of his tallit. At that moment I knew he had regained his equilibrium. He accomplished something to earn a party, or so he thought, only to later acknowledge how transformative it felt to be a leader. The party was over in a couple of hours, the transformation he experienced is still with him.

When the ancient Israelites stood at Sinai they uttered, in one voice, n’aseh v’nishma, we will do and we will understand.  In other words, Torah is telling us that experience is essential to understanding. When Moses charged them to be courageous, they had no frame of reference. The Children of Israel, thus far in Torah, have been in a wilderness cocoon. They have been told where to stand, what to carry, when to move forward. Perhaps Moses thought to impart the benefit of his own experience when he said, “Fortify yourselves!” Whatever his intentions, we now know their outcome.

Through their years of wanderings in the wilderness, the Israelites became seasoned and disciplined. When they next stood at this same crossing place, they were better able to understand what was being asked and how to achieve it.  

At the end of Shelach Lecha the survivors of the scouting aftermath receive the commandment to wear tzitzit, fringes, those same fringes our son grabbed hold of during a time of duress. Those fringes have served as a visual representation and powerful reminder of our partnership with God, a symbol of an eternal covenant.  

The books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers explore a human response to new realities and how difficult it is to overcome fears, desires and new paradigms. Torah reminds us that by marking the doorposts of our homes and wearing fringed markers on our garments, we can stay on course. Torah also teaches that whenever we enter a new reality, we should, as the ancient Israelites were commanded by Moses, immediately erect a great, plastered pillar and to record those reminders about what it means to be Jewish.  

Today we, too,  are living in a new reality, one that inspires fear and skepticism on a global scale. Unlike the spies who had little experience, we have been seasoned through many crossings. We can, like the ancient Israelites, follow the voices that say what we want to hear or we can elect to follow those voices, like Joshua and Caleb’s, who can infuse our reality with wisdom, knowledge and insight: the true Spirit of God.