Shelach By David Hartley Mark

Here is the famous disparity, the results of the mission which Moses sent into the Land of Israel. He chooses twelve spies, each one a prince of his tribe, and gives them a mission: to spy out the Land, to see if the inhabitants dwell in walled cities or open ones; whether they are mighty or weak; if the land is fertile or barren, and, finally, to bring back some of its fruits. The spies do their job most admirably, spending forty days in the Land. They come back bearing a bunch of grapes so monstrously big that two men must carry it on a treelike branch between them—this symbol remains that of the Israeli Tourist Office.

The report is mixed: ten of the spies are pessimistic of the Israelites’ chances of conquest: after all, a settled, farming people is higher on the scale of civilization than nomads. The inhabitants of the Land are giants, compared to whom the Israelites resemble grasshoppers (Num. 13:33). Only Calev ben Yefuneh of the Tribe of Judah, and Joshua ben Nun (here called Hoshea, a curious emendation, implying the lack of the Godly “yud” from his name) are certain that the people will be able to conquer the Land, secure in God’s assistance. But they are shouted down, and “all the people wept that night” (Num. 14:1), almost resolving to return to Egypt!

What can we learn from this? The Chasidic Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, known as the Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859), whose hallmark was a relentless pursuit of the truth, wonders why the ten spies who, it seems superficially, told the truth, were punished. He answers: they told the bare-bones truth, but they lacked faith. Only Calev and Joshua are able to see that, beyond walled cities and giant grapes—the hard facts of this world—lies the power of God, the Ultimate Decisor of human destiny. We live our lives, and make our choices, or think we do, but our power and vision are limited: only God can see the entire scope and picture of our lives, and how they play out within His plan for the universe. It takes faith—a faith we sorely need, and often lack.

Sadly, the doubters and naysayers carry the day, and God dooms the Israelites to wander forty years in the wilderness, the exact number of days that the misguided spies spent in Canaan. Ultimately, the doubters will perish in the desert, and their children, a brave new generation loyal to Joshua, will conquer the land. What land will you conquer today? What choice will you make, what chance dare you take? Do you have faith in yourself—more importantly, do you have faith in God?

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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