HOW COULD THEY GET IT SO WRONG?
How could people who were as clever as the spies get it so wrong as to suggest that God would be unable to bring the nation safely into the Promised Land (Num. 14:27)?
Perhaps they were scared at the big adjustment they would have to make when they entered a new home. Maybe they doubted their leader Moses. True, he had led them through the wilderness and organised their camp quite efficiently, but now he was getting old and might be unable to meet the requirements of a new life.
Perhaps they were worried about whether the people deserved God’s help. How much more could they expect from Him when they had shown their shortcomings by worshipping a golden calf?
Whatever the answer to the question, they were guilty of a lack of patience, trust and faith. Leadership brings constant doubts and challenges, but leaders have to be sustained by the long view.
There is a constant theme in the Book of Psalms of the Psalmist never losing faith that God would win in the end, even though questions could be asked about His timing. The Psalmist asks,
“How long, O Lord, how long?”
He never says, “
God, I give up on You!”
IFS, BUTS & STILL.
Sometimes one word says it all. This comes across clearly from the story of the ten spies. Twelve people were sent to spy out the land of Israel. Ten reported on the magnificence of the land, but there was a “but”. “Efes”, they said: but the people are fierce, the cities are fortified, and giants live there (Num. 13:28).
The “efes” said it all: we are going to be defeated. Only two spies, Joshua and Caleb, had the faith in God and themselves to go ahead.
Nachmanides says the word “efes” denotes human impossibility. This one word indicated an unpardonable offence. Had the ten simply said the people of the country were mighty and the cities fortified they would merely have stated a fact and done their duty. But the word “efes” said that when an obstacle looms it is automatically impenetrable.
People are sometimes, perhaps often, like the pessimistic ten. Things have a habit of going wrong. Nobody’s life always runs smoothly. Isn’t it Murphy’s Law that whatever can go wrong will? But Murphy and all who think like him deserve our sympathy. Joshua and Caleb’s Law is better: things may look tough, but I’m still alive, aren’t I, and as the Latin saying put it, while I breathe I hope.
No-one should abandon the future and forget to have faith in God, in oneself and, yes (most of the time), in other human beings too.
NOTHING & SOMETHING.
Moses is told to send to Canaan a fact-finding delegation representing all the tribes (Num. 13:2). Every delegate is to be a “nasi”, literally a prince.
The Degel Machaneh Ephrayim notes that the letters of “nasi” unite the aleph-yod-nun of “ayin”, “nothing” and the yod-shin of “yesh”, “something”.
He says that if a prince is puffed up and arrogant and thinks he is a great “yesh”, he will end up being thrown off his pedestal and becoming an “ayin”. But if he is humble and modest and knows that his status comes from God and the people, i.e. he sees himself as an “ayin”, he will go on to be a “yesh” and to warrant the support of God and man.
It is at the end of this week’s sidra that we first meet the command of tzitzit, of having fringes on the corners of our garments. Unusually, the text gives us not only the law but also its rationale:
“You shall put fringes on the corners of your garments… that you may look at it (the fringe) and be reminded of all the commandments of the Lord”.
It has been suggested that the Hebrew “oto”, usually translated “it” (the fringe) can also be understood as “Him” and be a reference to God. In other words, by looking at the tzitzit one has in a sense a mystical experience and sees the Almighty.
Of course this cannot be taken literally, since God has no physical shape or form, but through looking at the fringe one is reminded of the Divine commandments and as it were one perceives God through the mitzvot which are His messengers.
The mitzvah of kashrut is God telling us that holiness is not merely an internal spiritual feeling but must be expressed in normal day-to-day life; the mitzvah of Shabbat is God urging us to sanctify time; the mitzvah of charity is God insisting that we love and support our fellow human beings.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.