Shelach Lecha: The Comfort Zone

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them.” …At the end of forty days they returned from scouting the land…and they made their report…”We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey…However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large…Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” But the men who had gone up with him said, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.”…Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers…” (B’midbar 13:1-32).

It’s easier to stay pristine
when we know what God wants,
(preferably mediated by His chosen one).

He tells us; we do it.
Everything is supplied:
manna floats down from heaven,
water spouts from the rock.
Nothing much to think about.

Neither complexity nor modernity
intrude. And if we do slip up,
feedback is not slow to come
(preferably mediated by His chosen one).

Is it not better, then,
to stay sheltered in our safe oasis
and not sully our hands
with the work of the world?

In Parashat Shelach Lecha, we read about the episode of the spies who are sent to reconnoiter in the land of Israel ahead of the Children of Israel going up and inhabiting it, as God has promised they will. We are told that the land flows with milk and honey as promised, yet ten of the twelve spies return extremely negative and fearful about the possibility of a successful outcome. Only Joshua and Calev are encouraging and believe in the people’s ability to go up, with God’s support, to inherit the land, but the people are led astray and refuse to listen, despite having been the closest witnesses to God’s power when they left Egypt and were guided through the wilderness.

In a commentary on Shelach Lecha from 2011,, Dr Rachel Anisfeld opens with an anecdote about her small son who wants to join his father in the men’s section of a synagogue they are visiting for the first time. Looking through the glass door, her four-year- old sees rows of men, but cannot spot his father who is among the crowd. He opens the door, goes through but returns after a short interval, saying he is scared. He tries again, but comes back a second time. Finally his mother encourages him by telling him he can do it: “This is your chance to be brave. You’re scared. That’s fine. But you can do it. You just have to be brave.” And with that he goes and does not come back. Dr Anisfeld suggests that had she elaborated on the reality of the situation, that there really was nothing to fear (as she had tried in the past) her words would not have helped him. Through four-year-old eyes, she suggests, entering a sea of men three times his size might be reminiscent of the spies who enter a land whose inhabitants appeared like giants to them. In both cases, she says, their fear might be justified.
Dr Anisfeld cites the Esh Kodesh, the Piaseczner Rebbe who was martyred in the Warsaw Ghetto. He notes that Calev realises that it will be useless to try to argue the other spies out of their perception and deny their impressions. So instead of saying that the inhabitants are not giants, but actually tiny, and that the cities are not well fortified but rather undefended, he is encouraging: “Alo na’aleh veyarashnu otah ki yachol nuchal lah – we will surely go up and inherit it because we will surely be able to accomplish this.” He does not tell them their fears are groundless. As the Esh Kodesh knows, from his own experience, the problem lies not in the reality, which may in fact be insurmountable, but rather in the attitude that might enable fear to conquer faith. Therefore Calev does not try to disabuse them but he tries to instill confidence in them that they can overcome their fear and progress towards the goal. Dr Anisfeld points out that within Calev’s encouraging words, he repeats two of the verbs for emphasis: “ALoH na’ALeH – which translates as “we will surely go up” and “YaCHoL nUCHaL – which in current parlance could be rendered “we absolutely can do this”. She suggests that Calev is trying to point them in the direction of trying, and of overcoming their fear, although, as we read, he does not not succeed.

However, in a commentary on Shelach Lecha from 2012, and in a later commentary from 2016, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses the same episode, which he notes puzzled the sages through the ages and was generally regarded as a huge failure of faith and vision on the part of these ten spies. What makes this story more bewildering is the fact that these ten scouts were leaders and princes among the people, not ordinary citizens. So why were they so mistaken? Rabbi Sacks cites the Rambam who suggests that they were fearful because they had been slaves and although now free, they were not ready to fight to inherit the land and live as free people. That would be the work of a new generation, born in freedom. The Rambam posits that human beings can change, but that transformation does not happen so fast. (Guide to the Perplexed III, 32). Rabbi Sacks says that most of the commentators then, assume that the spies were guilty of a failure of nerve, or faith, or both, and this is what the text seems to imply. But, he says, Chasidic teaching, from that of the Baal Shem Tov through R. Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (the Sefat Emet) to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, brings a vastly different interpretation. These Rabbis suggest that the spies, all princes and leaders, had good intentions. They were not afraid of the battles against the inhabitants of the land. Rabbi Sacks says, “They did not fear failure; they feared success. Their concern was not physical but spiritual. They did not want to leave the wilderness. They did not want to become just another nation among the nations of the earth. They did not want to lose their unique relationship with God in the reverberating silence of the desert, far removed from civilization and its discontents.”
He continues that here in the desert, they could feel God’s presence among them, in the Mishkan and in the clouds of glory that led them. No other generation before or since lived in such palpably close proximity to the Divine Presence. They were fed on heavenly manna and drank water that issued from the rock. They witnessed miracles daily! Rabbi Sacks says, “So long as they stayed in the desert under God’s sheltering canopy, they did not need to plough the earth, plant seeds, gather harvests, defend a country, run an economy, maintain a welfare system, or shoulder any of the other earthly burdens and distractions that take peoples’ minds away from the Divine.
“Here, in no-man’s-land, in liminal space, suspended between past and future, they were able to live with a simplicity and directness of encounter they could not hope to find once they had re-entered the gravitational pull of everyday life in the material world. Paradoxically, since a desert is normally the exact opposite of a garden, the wilderness was the Israelites’ Eden. Here they were as close to God as were the first humans before their loss of innocence.”
Rabbi Sacks reminds us that both Hosea and Jeremiah liken that early era in the wilderness to a honeymoon. Hosea says, quoting God addressing His people “I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:16), prophesying that in the future God will return to the desert with His people to celebrate a second honeymoon. Jeremiah says in God’s name, “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2). So both prophets allude to the wilderness years as the time of the first love between God and the Israelites. And that, suggests Rabbi Sacks, is what the spies were reluctant to leave.
He adds that although this line of thought is not suggested by a simple reading of the text, we should not disregard it as he believes it gives us an insight into “the unconscious mindset of the spies” which has something to teach us today. He says the spies did not want to relinquish their intimacy with God and the comforting simplicity of their life under His shadow, just as children sometimes are reluctant to move into adulthood. “Ultimately the spies feared freedom and its responsibilities.”
But, Rabbi Sacks continues that Torah is about going out into the world.
Judaism has produced its hermits who have retreated from the world, like the Qumran sect depicted in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Talmud also teaches us about R. Shimon bar Yochai who lived for thirteen years in a cave, so as not to see people pursuing physical activities such as ploughing a field. But these were by no means part of the mainstream. Rabbi Sacks says “This is not the destiny of Israel, to live outside time and space in ashrams or monasteries as the world’s recluses. Far from being the supreme height of faith, such a fear of freedom and its responsibilities is – according to both the Gerer and Lubavitcher Rebbe – the sin of the spies.”
And although a few people, epitomised by R. Shimon bar Yochai, regarded involvement in worldly matters as incompatible with spiritual ascent, the majority view did not accept this. Rabbi Sacks cites from Pirkei Avot, (2:2): “Torah study without an occupation will in the end fail and lead to sin” and from the Rambam: “One who makes his mind up to study Torah and not to work but to live on charity, profanes the name of God, brings the Torah into contempt, extinguishes the light of religion, brings evil upon himself, and deprives himself of life hereafter.” (Laws of Torah Study 3:10).
So Rabbi Sacks suggests that the spies had an idyllic fantasy in which they might be secluded from the outside world, and the people would dwell forever in “the eternal childhood of God’s protection and the endless honeymoon of His all-embracing love.”
So Rabbi Sacks surmises that the spies were not afraid of failure, rather of success. Their mistake, he says, was that of very holy men, who failed to understand that what God is searching for is, in Chasidic parlance, “a dwelling in the lower worlds”. He notes that Judaism is notable for seeking to bring Heaven down to earth, rather than the reverse. Thus Torah is incredibly occupied with mundane and practical issues, often not considered the stuff of religion at all, like agricultural matters, loans and debts, responsibilities of employers, welfare provisions. Rabbi Sacks says, “It is not difficult to find God in the wilderness, if you do not eat from the labor of your hands and if you rely on God to fight your battles for you. Ten of the spies, according to the [Lubavitcher] Rebbe, sought to live that way forever. But that, suggested the Rebbe, is not what God wants from us. He wants us to engage with the world. He wants us to heal the sick, feed the hungry, fight injustice with all the power of law, and combat ignorance with universal education. He wants us to show what it is to love the neighbour and the stranger, and say, with Rabbi Akiva, “Beloved is humanity because we are each created in God’s image.”
“Jewish spirituality lives in the midst of life itself, the life of society and its institutions. To create it we have to battle with two kinds of fear: fear of failure, and fear of success. Fear of failure is common; fear of success is rarer but no less debilitating. Both come from the reluctance to take risks. Faith is the courage to take risks. It is not certainty; it is the ability to live with uncertainty. It is the ability to hear God saying to us as He said to Abraham, ‘Walk on ahead of Me’.” (Bereishit 17:1).
Rabbi Sacks notes that the Lubavitcher Rebbe endorsed this teaching in a very practical way. He dispatched emissaries to every possible place where Jews might live and thus transformed Jewish life world-wide. He asked his followers to take risks, to leave their comfort zones. But the Rebbe believed in them and in their mission that demanded of them to radiate their faith outwards in a very practical way.
Rabbi Sacks concludes, “It is challenging to leave the desert and go out into the world with all its trials and temptations, but that is where God wants us to be, bringing His spirit to the way we run an economy, a welfare system, a judiciary, a health service and an army, healing some of the wounds of the world and bringing, to places often shrouded in darkness, fragments of Divine light.”




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