Weekly Torah Commentary – Shelach May 31, 2013

This week’s parsha has one of the more familiar of the Torah events: the foray of the twelve spies into Canaan.
Those who have studied Torah for years are familiar with the traditional interpretations of this story. The Spies go into Canaan, return with an enormous branch of large, luscious grapes, but in giving their report, they discourage the children of Israel through instilling fear that Israel will be unable to prevail against the ‘giants’ living there. Their famous declaration is well known: ‘We are like grasshoppers before them and so are we in their eyes.’ This is a common interpretation.

A casual investigation of their claim proves that the assumption of the spies was entirely incorrect. Later when Joshua enters Jericho, Rahab tells him that her people were “terrified” of the Israelites for they knew that God was with them. We also read in Shemot that the Moabites, the chiefs of Edom and the Canaanites were all trembling in fear of the Israelites. (Shemot/Exodus 15:15-16)

By drawing the assumption they did, the Spies engage in such a common human failure. We’ve all done the same. Based on subjective feelings we have, we assume that other people think this way or that, or have this or that perception of us, of our children, of our activities, etc. Virtually 99% of the time, we are completely wrong in those assumptions. As a psychiatrist friend of ours once said, “Other people don’t think about you anywhere near as much as you think about yourself!” Creating mental assumptions of what other people are thinking is always a dangerous undertaking. Better we take the advice of the Sages and apply ourselves to think positively, ascribe good intentions to others and free our minds from the tedious and wearying task of trying to figure out what other people are thinking. A great waste of time especially since we are wrong in our “assumptions” most of the time!

Speaking of good intentions – the Baal Shem Tov offered an entirely different insight into the behavior of the Spies. He proposed that the spies were not actually afraid of failure; they were afraid of success. Why?

In the Baal Shem Tov’s thinking, the Spies realized the implications of taking the Land. It would bring great responsibility to create a workable society, plant crops, harvest them, run an economy, maintain a welfare system and defend a country. They compared those implications with the present state of the children of Israel who enjoyed a particularly unique relationship with Hashem. They were closer to God than any generation since Gan Eden. They had the visible presence of God in their midst, they lived by daily miracles. All of that would disappear once they entered the Land. You can almost hear one of the Spies saying to the others, “Do you really think the people are ready for such an enormous undertaking? What if the task of conquering and building a nation distracts us from our relationship with Hashem? That would be terrible.”

Though well intentioned perhaps, says the Baal Shem Tov, the Spies nevertheless missed the whole point that THIS – conquering and settling the Land and building a godly society – is in fact exactly what the Torah is all about! The Torah is a blueprint for the construction of a wholesome and efficient society precisely because God chose Israel to make His presence visible in the world and that means Israel must live “IN” the world. Torah is not about a monastic retreat but about engagement with the world in order to make it better.

The Spies may not have wanted to “contaminate” the Israelites by bringing them into contact with the world, yet as we read in Avot 2:2 “Torah study without an occupation will in the end fail and lead to sin.” We are not to fear the world; we are called to enter it and transform it.

The intent of the Spies may seem noble but it is fundamentally irresponsible, says the Baal Shem Tov.

In Tune with Torah this week = to meditate on how each of us individually and the Jewish people as a nation can so live so that one day, the nations of the world will be able to say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” Dev. 4:6

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