This week’s Torah Portion is Shelah-Lecha, the sending out of the spies. Moses sends out a scout from each of the twelve tribes to scope out the Promised Land and determine if it is inhabitable. The spies discover that it is indeed a land flowing with milk and honey (date honey, specifically, most likely), and that there is good fruit to eat there, including grapes so large it takes two people to carry the bunch! But they also discover that the land is already inhabited, and they view the inhabitants as large and scary, and they report back to Moses that they should not try to conquer the land. All but Caleb and Joshua prepare to elect new leadership and head back to Egypt. The work was hard and the pay poor (read: non-existent), but at least there were no giants! They even cry out, “Oh! It would be better to die here in the Wilderness than to die by the sword in the land!” So, G-d declares that that is precisely what will happen. In case you thought the Israelites wandered for forty years because Moses’s fragile male ego didn’t allow him to ask for directions, this parasha confirms otherwise (take that, gender stereotyping!). G-d commands that the Israelites should wander for forty years to allow for all the unfaithful to die out, as they claim would be better than trying to enter the land. Then, all the children who did not try to overthrow Moses’s leadership will be able to enter the Promised Land.
Often, I disagree with the accepted view of our tradition’s so-called “villains”. I think Esau was misunderstood, Korah gets a bad rep, and even sneaky Laban who treated his children like his cattle was really only playing by the rules of his day and giving Jacob his comeuppance. However, I have to concede to our tradition that the ten spies and the people who sided with the them, are cowards and stupid. G-d has already performed great miracles for them, leading them out of Egypt, parting the Sea, raining down manna and quails so they have enough to eat in the wilderness, and making G-d’s constant presence known through the pillar of smoke by day and fire by night. How could these people still be afraid that the land G-d promised them will be somehow inaccessible to them? That they will all die by the sword fighting for this land? Did NO ONE even consider, that maybe there wouldn’t even be any fighting? I mean, I know I mentioned last week that there are parts of the Bible where G-d commands the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites, but I’m pretty sure that hasn’t happened yet when the spies are sent. Maybe there’s enough land for everyone and no one needs to fight over it! Of course, we know, as wise Torah scholars, that they do need to fight over it, and probably the scouts knew that too, even before being told. Sadly, that’s the way society worked back then, and even more sadly, it is too often still the way things work. People conquer new lands, and push out the old inhabitants. I’m not advocating for this; I’m just acknowledging that it happens, and that these spies had every indication that their venture would be successful, in spite of the big scary giants that already lived in the land.
Most of us probably have not seen any great miracles like the parting of the Sea or manna from heaven, and even if we are spiritual people that feel we can have conversations with G-d, probably have never really seen or heard G-d’s presence in such a direct way as the Israelites have, with their guiding pillars of smoke and fire, and their revelations on Mount Sinai. So, when faced with a difficult task, it’s far more reasonable for any of you to feel frightened or inadequate than it was for these spies. But if you know, deep down, that it is the right thing for you to do, then that it the same as G-d commanding you to do it. And even if it is daunting, do not shy away from your calling, or you will squander your life in the wilderness.
I have encountered some difficult moments throughout the decade I’ve been on my journey toward becoming a rabbi, times when I was unsure I was doing the right thing or that I would be good enough at it. But all along, there was a tug in my soul letting me know it was what G-d wanted of me and for me; the rabbinate is my Promised Land. There have also been really wonderful moments, where I didn't need a tug in my heart or soul, because such joy was already right in front of me, and a lot of those moments have been here at Temple Beth Emeth, and especially with the Hebrew school and Youth Group. I want to thank you for being an important part of my journey, and leave you with a wish that you all find your calling and that you run toward it, not away from it. May it bring you a heart flowing with metaphorical milk and honey: joy, peace, and fulfillment. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.