Shelach L’cha ‘We can surely do it’: Working to create a world of compassion, justice and peace

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By Rabbi Andrea Goldstein, D. Min

In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach L’cha, the Israelites find themselves standing on the border of Eretz Yisrael, the land promised to their ancestors by God. After suffering for so long at the hands of the Egyptians, they will finally have a home where they will not be subjugated or oppressed. We can imagine this moment as a time filled with anticipation and joy. But for the Israelites it is also a time fraught with worry, uncertainty and fear. The people want to know what they can expect when they enter this new land, so Moses sends 12 leaders, one from every tribe, on a scouting mission. The scouts are gone for 40 days, and they bring back a report of all that they observed.

They tell Moses and the people that, yes, this is a land flowing with milk and honey, a land capable of producing massive fruits, with grapes the size of grapefruits. They also note that the people who currently inhabit the land are y’liday ha-anak, literally “children of giants” — these people are huge! They explain that the cities are heavily guarded and that the land is surrounded by enemy nations.

Joshua and Caleb, two of the 10 scouts, acknowledge that these frightening facts about the land are true. Yet, they still insist, “Ki yachol nu-chal la — We can surely do it!” (Num. 13:30). 

Unfortunately, the other 10 scouts voice a different view. They say that the inhabitants of the land wield too much power and that the task is too great. They describe the land as a place that “devours its inhabitants.” They reveal how helpless they feel to act in the face of all these challenges by saying, “We felt like grasshoppers in our own eyes, so we must have looked like grasshoppers to the inhabitants as well” (Num. 30:33).


After this statement, the whole of the Israelite community is convinced of their own smallness, and they weep, saying that they want to return to Egypt. They lose hope, they lose faith, and they lose the courage they had that helped them take those first steps across the Sea of Reeds towards freedom. Saddest of all, they give up on the vision that was gifted to them at Sinai — a vision of a world where justice takes its rightful place in the center of society and care for vulnerable is the law of the land. 

Perhaps some of us can relate to the Israelites of this week’s portion. We, too, may feel like we are facing a world filled with giants. Between gun violence, infant mortality rates, the eradication of our constitutional right to access abortion, the banning of gender affirming care for minors, and a lack of a serious plan to deal with climate change, we live in a land that is actually devouring its inhabitants. We live in a land where rising antisemitism and hate crimes target not only Jews, but also people of color, immigrants and the LGBTQ+ community. We live in a land where voting restrictions and gerrymandering make us fearful for the future of democracy.

It is understandable if, in response to this reality, we feel a deep sense of grief as well as righteous anger, exhaustion, and fear over what we believe our nation and world are becoming. It is understandable if we, like the Israelites, want to throw up our arms and walk away, leaving the fight to others who are stronger, better equipped, or more up to the task. 

But confusing these feelings with our actual ability to take action, to make a difference, and to work for change — that would be repeating what we call the sins of the spies. We, as a Jewish community, have been given a transformational vision of the world as it ought to be, a world of compassion, justice and peace. 

If we truly believe in and value this vision, then giving into hopelessness at the current state of the world is not an option. Instead, we are called upon to remember Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who saw the exact same challenges and peril, who felt that same fear and still insisted, “We can surely do it!” 

This work of creating a world that is just, that cares for those who cannot care for themselves, that respects the bodily autonomy of each person, and that celebrates the differences that make us beautiful is not easy. But it is the task that has been set down for us, and together, with God’s help, we can surely do it.