The phrase "Shelach Lecha" is a curious grammatical construction. Rather than simply meaning "send," the Torah reads, literally, "send to yourself." This is a clue: There is a personal message in a story that is clearly focused on a national drama.
The parshah tells the story of the 12 spies sent into the promised land to report back about the place and its people. The spies are awed and frightened by what they see: The fruit of the land is huge and abundant; so are the people in it. It seems they will be formidable adversaries when the Israelites go in to claim the land.
The spies come back and give their report, the majority concluding that "we cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we." They explain about the giants there: "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, so we must have looked to them."
The community hears this report and responds with a reaction worthy of a toddler. They throw a tantrum, crying and shouting, exclaiming that if they go to the land, they will be killed. They wish they could go back to Egypt — it would have been better if they were never freed from there at all.
Joshua and Caleb, alone among the spies, have a different perspective. They explain that the land is good, and that if the people trust and obey the Lord, they will be safe when they go in to conquer it. They entreat the people not to fear the giants who dwell there.
Next, it is God's turn to act like a toddler, saying to Moses, "I will strike the people with pestilence and disown them, and I will make of you a nation far more numerous than they!" Moses tries to save the people by talking God down from anger.
He uses reason, explaining that if God does kill all of God's people, the other nations will wonder why God does not have enough power to bring the people into the land as promised. He also appeals to God's best nature, reminding God that it is God's nature to forgive as God has done before: "The Lord! Slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression."
These parallel impulses — the people wanting to go back to Egypt in the face of fear, and God wanting to destroy the people for being obstinate — are the kind of stubbornness we often see in ourselves and in others. Fear and frustration can lead us to dig our heals in deeper, or to declare a whole endeavor "not worth it."
These two stories offer models for how we may be drawn out of feeling stuck and angry. Joshua and Caleb remind the people that fear is the main thing holding them back, and that they have the support they need from God if they would only have faith. Often a little faith — in ourselves or in a higher power — is all we need to move forward out of a stuck place. They looked like grasshoppers to themselves, so they only imagine that is how they seem to the giants; they don't know for sure.
Moses' technique for changing God's punishment is also instructive. He appeals to the best qualities of God, reminding God of the kindness and forgiveness God is able to show God's people. Sometimes, to move forward, we need a friend to remind us of our best qualities so we do not get stuck in anger.
This all takes time. The generation of the desert cannot enter the land, but their children eventually do. So too, when we "send to ourselves," we must be patient in moving ourselves forward.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]