Parashat Sh’lach L’cha: Power in self-control, patience

Rabbi Seth D Gordon serves Traditional Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 

By Rabbi Seth D Gordon

Parashat Sh’lach L’cha records Moses’ sending of scouts to check out the Promised Land and the Israelite response. Ten of the 12 scouts recommend to not advance, and they persuade the people. That response is regarded as faithlessness and is one of the major failures of the wilderness generation. God is so angry at Israel’s lack of faith, after all that He had done, that He tells Moses that He will “disown them, and I will make you another nation even greater than it.” (14:12)

Moses balks. Despite his own frustrations with the Israelites, (in the tradition of Abraham) he argues with God: Your reputation will be harmed, irreparably — You, who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, will be regarded by the rest of the world that You are powerless, unable to bring them to the land that You promised them.

For me, it is the next verse which is particularly striking: Moses adds “Yigdal na ko’ach” — he encourages God to “increase Your strength” or “let Your strength be great” — not to annihilate Israel – but to manifest Your real strength – that is, patience and great love. Indeed, Moses does convince God.  (We may consider that God wants Moses to convince Him, so that this particular type of strength — love, patience, and forbearance — will triumph).

In Torah wisdom this quality finds expression.  The Book of Proverbs, a biblical collection of collections of moral-religious wisdom offers: “Better to be forbearing than mighty, to have self-control than to conquer a city.” (16:32) And in 19:11 : “A person shows his intelligence by his forbearance; it is his glory when he overlooks an offense.” In centuries of accumulated wisdom, forbearance in Proverbs is linked to self-control, intelligence and glory.  

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And the Sages continued this theme:  “Who is mighty?  He who conquers / harnesses his passions / urges / inclinations / desires.” (Mishnah Pirke Avot 4:1)  What is real strength, exhibiting aggressive power, vanquishing your enemy or adversary? Indeed, there are times when one must and should defend themselves, and conventional expressions of power are necessary.  But Torah wisdom offers something else to consider.  Often, giving in to one’s yetser ha-ra (one’s id) is a weakness, rather than a strength.  Unlike some contemporary thinking — that what we feel should be expressed in action — Torah wisdom teaches forbearance and self-control. The power of forbearance, patience, and harnessing urges, judiciously employed, is true strength and worthy of praise.

Shabbat Shalom.