This week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, might be considered the apex of their rebellion.
The Book of Numbers can be divided into three parts. Everything seems to be going very well in the first 10 chapters. The people are moving forward toward the Promised Land, following God and Moses, getting organized and situated for the fulfillment of their purpose and their liberation from bondage.
Then things start falling apart. The people grumble, rebel, get anxious and more and more ornery.
This week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, might be considered the apex of their rebellion. It is a very painful episode. It begins when Moses sends leaders from each tribe to investigate the Promised Land. Joshua and Caleb return willing to move forward, but the other 10 men object. They are overwhelmed by fear and their perception of sure defeat (“we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (13:33). The people seem to have lost faith in their leaders and in God’s promise. They no longer believe that freedom or change is possible for them. Their despair is palpable and turns to rage and blame.
God is desperate and proposes to start all over building a more steadfast and faithful people with the descendants of Moses.
The Torah poses this question: How to move forward on this journey and restore a sense of purpose and possibility? It is Moses’ question and God’s question, too. It is the question posed in our own lives when we encounter the very same emotions of terror or doubt and when we despair at reaching our dream or losing the relationship or the clarity we once found accessible.
Rabbi Jonathan Slater has written an extraordinary two-volume book, Partner in Holiness, where he collects the teachings of the Chasidic Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev for each Torah portion. Slater writes his own contemplative commentary, challenging the reader to apply the lessons of Torah to their own life and personal practice.
In our portion, Yitzhak quotes the words Moses speaks as he tries to convince God not to give up on these weak and flawed people. These are the words Moses speaks earlier in Torah, after the sin of the golden calf, minus two key words: graciousness (chanun) and compassion (rachum). Yitzhak writes, “Here, when the people sent out the scouts (and when they learned of God’s displeasure), they neither believed in the quality of compassion — that the blessed Holy One would connect directly to the people of Israel — nor in the quality of graciousness, that we are viewed with grace by God. That is why, here, Moses did not include graciousness and compassion in his appeal to God, only that God is slow to anger.”
This change is more of a reflection on the people than upon God. The slave generation cannot enter the free land. It takes a new generation to continue the journey, which is prolonged to nearly 40 years. In the last 11 chapters of Numbers, the grumbling and rebellion has ceased. The people are back on track.
Yitzhak understands that God’s compassion and graciousness never ceases. It is constant. It is our limited ideas and impressions, our inability to imagine, to trust and especially to feel worthy that obscures this great truth.
The generation of slavery, despite the glorious deliverance from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai, did not really believe they were worthy of divine love. Rabbi Slater asks us to consider, for ourselves, the question, “If we come to God in fear and can rely only on God’s long suffering nature, is it likely that we will want to remain in relationship?”
This is a profound challenge to Jews today. Does our connection to Judaism fill us with a sense of our own divine image? Does it fill us with a sense of our own goodness and wholeness, even when our behaviors fall short and our attitudes are imperfect? We need to access the energy and the trust that we can change our habits born in oppression and be true to our deepest goodness. But how?
After the intense encounter with the spies, Chapter 15 recounts a series of offerings, ritual practices mediated by the sacrificial system to calm and order the agitated mind and heart. In the midst of this, there are several verses (15:13-16, 29 and 30) that specify how we must include the stranger in these rituals of community.
This is the practice that sustains our sense of God’s love. We meet the stranger with acceptance and include the one who is different and the one who frightens us. This parallels our dedication to meeting with love the stranger within our heart, the frightened child, and the shame, sense of inadequacy or unworthiness.
It is up to us to recover the graciousness and compassion which is part of the divine plan, the divine name. It is up to us to find a Jewish life that expands our ability to feel a safe abiding, a sacred knowing. Love of self, love of neighbor and love of the stranger within and without is the power of transformation. Love is the only power capable of sustaining us on this sacred human journey.
Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg has worked in the Jewish community for more than 50 years. She writes, does climate activism, teaches mindfulness meditation and serves as a spiritual director. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.