Judy E. Gross, June 11, 1999
Fear is politically incorrect now. Several years ago, the movie Defending Your Life made fear the reason to be rejected or even ejected from Heaven. More recently, an epigram of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav has made the rounds of Jewish studies, slightly misquoted to say "life is a narrow bridge, and the important thing is not to be afraid." And within the last several weeks, my kids report that the new Star Wars movie includes Yoda's wisdom that fear is bad because it engenders hate and all kinds of bad stuff. This week's parsha, Shelach-lecha, is a study of fear, but it instructs us that fear is only bad if you fear the wrong things or cannot act in spite of your fear.
The portion begins with the Israelites almost in the Promised Land of Canaan, still guided by God in the form of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, but they still are uncertain why they left Egypt and if God, who forgot them for four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, really is giving them something worth having, including a good land.
Because the Israelites do not really trust God, God tells Moses to send spies or scouts into Canaan so that the Israelites can learn from the scout's reports about the land. These scouts are not just anyone: Moses is to pick a prince from each tribe so that each tribe will have a report from someone it trusts, and these princes' names and their fathers are listed at some length. People can know the princes at least by reputation and have reason to believe their report.
The scouts go throughout Canaan and find various tribes living in the land. The scouts return with a mixed report. The land is, indeed, flowing with milk and honey. They brought back a grape cluster, which was so large that two men had to carry it between them on a pole, as well as pomegranates and figs. But all the scouts except for Joshua and Caleb are afraid and insist that the land is dangerous - it eats its inhabitants- and giants live there. Indeed, the scouts report that when they saw the inhabitants, the scouts in their own eyes looked like grasshoppers in comparison and believed that that is how the inhabitants must have seen them. Their fear has made them believe that it is impossible for the Israelites to defeat the Canaanites. Despite Caleb and Joshua's urgings, the people refuse to enter the land to fight for it, instead repeating their refrain that they wish they had stayed in Egypt or would die in the wilderness rather than have their children carried off by the Canaanites. This is definitely a case of being careful what you wish for.
The people are so frightened that they start to stone Moses and are only deterred when the Presence of the Lord appears before the whole community. God repeats his offer or threat to Moses to destroy all the people and give Moses a different set of people to lead; Moses pleads on behalf of the Israelites on the familiar ground that the Egyptians will think God was not powerful enough to bring the Israelites into the land. Apparently, the Egyptians would have been right. God informs the people that as a punishment, they will not be able to enter the Promised Land immediately and will not be able to defeat the inhabitants of the land if they try to go in. Instead, they will wander for forty years in the wilderness until all of them over 20 years of age except for Joshua and Caleb have died; only the children will be able to enter the promised land. At this, the people decide that maybe they can change God's mind if they show they are not afraid of the Canaanite and overcome their fear to try to capture Canaan. God is not with them, and they fail. In a truly Shakespearian ending to the story, the scouts who gave the bad report of the land all die of the plague.
So what do we make of this story? Throughout the parsha, we and the Israelites are given pairs of choices. Some of these choices include that they could believe God that the land is good or send for themselves ("shelach-lacha") important people to give human opinions; see from the evidence of the fruits that the scouts brought back from the land that God truly was giving them a land of milk and honey or believe that the land was wilderness that ate its inhabitants; believe that the Nephtallim - the giants that God had destroyed with Noah's flood - lived in the land or that people that they could overpower lived there; believe that the scouts appeared to the inhabitants as grasshoppers or remember that even if they were grasshoppers, God had used a plague of locusts against Egypt. Their choice was to trust God or fear the land. They chose to fear the land.
Now, this parsha does not say that there is nothing to fear except fear itself. The Israelites had many things to fear, but the Israelites guess wrong and fear the wrong things. They fear the land that eats its inhabitants instead of fearing survival without God's help. They fear Nephtallim and wilderness when they should fear lack of order, rebellious people, sin that isn't forgiven, or God's punishment, including plagues. They should have feared not getting what they prayed for - or getting what they prayed for, believing their eyes when their fear made them see themselves as grasshoppers rather than as people or rather than believing their eyes when they saw the fruit of the land. They would have done better to follow Admiral Fisher's motto when building the last wooden warship for England: Fear God and Dreadnought.
Unfortunately, the people had reason to fear at the end: they were sentenced to die in the wilderness. This death sentence had a predictable result. The Israelites unsuccessfully tried to change either change God's mind or win Canaan on their own. When that was unsuccessful, the people lost all hope, which in the next parsha leads to a major rebellion against Moses.
I say the result was predictable, but, in fact, this parsha does provide some protection for the Israelites; they do not need to be so afraid. First and most important, God is present for them. He has delivered them from Egypt and guided and protected them with the pillars of smoke and fire. He directly intervenes to save Moses. And even after sentencing the adults to die in the wilderness, He makes it clear that the children will enter the land. The guilty will be punished for the third and fourth generations - those that have to wander for 40 years - but the punishment will then be remitted.
After the bloody end of these chapters, the parsha continues in Chapter 15 with God giving rules to permit forgiveness of inadvertent wrong acts once the children are in the land. The Israelites are told that all, including the Israelite and the stranger who resides with them, are subject to the same laws, and are told that different rules apply to intentional violations of the law. When they find a man gathering wood on the Sabbath, presumably intentionally violating the law, they ask God the proper punishment. God instructs them to stone the man to death. They do. God then instructs the people to wear fringes on the corners of their garments to remind them of the laws.
At first blush, these provisions seem unrelated to the preceding story, but, when you think about them, you can see that they, in fact give the Israelites some protection and hope. First, it is absolutely clear that God's covenant with the Israelites was not abrogated. The group will survive the sojourn in the wilderness and will get the land. God has not withdrawn the promised land permanently. The children will not be carried off and killed as they had feared. God will accept prayers and sacrifices from them in the land - He has not turned away from them. He has reassured them that justice will prevail by preventing them from stoning Moses but telling them to stone the woodgatherer. (As I said, they are shown that there is plenty of reason to fear God. Moreover, the Illinois criminal justice system apparently could use a little more direct input from God on which people really are guilty and deserve the death penalty.) By making us cringe at the wood gatherer's punishment, He is perhaps even making us think a bit about our urges toward vigilante justice or following the precepts of Torah too closely.
God also provided equality as a protection. There was one law for the Israelites and the stranger residing among them. The princes of the people were subject to the same laws and the same punishment as the ordinary woodgatherer. All were to follow the law, but they were not excepted to be perfect. All could receive forgiveness for inadvertent transgressions. All were to wear the same fringes on their garments. It is notable that these fringes serve only to remind us of the law - God apparently gave up on visible signs of His presence as a way to make us believe in Him or trust Him. Even those who doubt Him or fear for the future could follow the law.
In the end, the people were not punished for having fear. When the people were afraid to go into the land, God suggested that they send the scouts to assuage their fear, but He did not punish them. They were only punished when they chose to ignore the visible evidence from the scouts and not trust God despite their fear. God gave them visible evidence of His support and the goodness of the land. If the people had believed their eyes, they could have gone into the land, albeit fearfully. To restate Rabbi Nachman's point about fear, life is a narrow bridge and the important thing is is not whether you are afraid; the important thing is that you choose to try to cross the bridge.