Shelach Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
How Good Intentions Can Go Wrong
This weeks Torah Portion contains one of the best know stories of the Exodus, yet there is an interesting word play that many non-Hebrew readers might miss which can teach us how starting with good intentions can lead to serious problems. The first thing we need to understand, is the different words that are used in the wording of the passage.
In Hebrew there are four words that are translated “to spy,” the first is ragal (רגל), which means to walk. However, it can also be translated: to backbite, search, slander, spy, teach to go, and view. The next two words are only translated as spy(ies) only once each. The first of these is the word Shomer, many might recognize the phrase Shomer Shabbat (guard of the Shabbat), or shomer Israel, which is a reference to God watching over Israel.
The next word chapar (חפר) means to paw or dig, but in this one case refers to an eagle or hawk searching out prey from a high perch. The final word, the one used in our passage is toor (תור), which means to meander, be excellent, search out and spy. For those familiar with Hebrew will recognize that it is the root for the word “dove,” which coincidently, is how the Ruach HaQodesh is pictured in the B’riyt Chadashah (New Covenant).
So now that we know the words, in the story of the “spies” Moshe sends (Shelach) leaders of the tribes to meander the Land like the dove that Noah sends out after the flood. After forty days the twelve men return and ten of the twelve give a bad report. As a result, Israel became afraid and refused to go up to the land extending their journey by thirty-eight years and none of that generation entering the Land. So how did they get to that point? The Bible is, like on many topics, strangely silent., and because of this, as in other places, we are required to “read into” the situation.
Later on in the book of Joshua, when the two men went into Jericho, Rachav told them that when Israel left Egypt the Canaanite people’s hearts had melted (Joshua 2:10), forty years earlier. The men searching out the land could not have known this, but Y’hoshua and Calev maintained their faith and believed that God could complete the task and give them victory, God was working in the background, even before Israel left Egypt.
As I read the passage, I often ask myself, what made the ten men see unconquerable cities and people? Did they start off with that attitude or did they gradually become demoralized? This is were our lesson begins, how does one go from being excited to demoralized and what happens when that change occurs. Again, as I read the passage, I try and imagine two years after leaving Egypt, they saw Pharaoh and his army destroyed, saw the building of the Tabernacle, been fed miraculously, and other miracles, so they should be feeling very confident in their search of the land. I often believe, like many starting a new venture, that they were hopeful and confident that God would lead them in a successful search and then a successful conquest. But, somewhere during their travels something happened, whether suddenly or over time, whether in their minds or while talking with each other, doubt entered their hearts.
It is my belief that the 12 Apostles (Sent ones, the title of the Parsha) started out, like many of us going into ministry, with positive thoughts of fulfilling God’s plan for themselves and others in their community, and maybe even doing world changing things. But as they move along their path, toward their goal, things got in the way. They saw giants and unassailable walls, something happened, either externally or internally, and discouragement set in.
Today, we do not see the miracles that the Children of Israel saw, for most of us, our miracles can be as simple as waking up every morning. So, when we receive a word from God for a project, we begin excited and jump in fully expecting things to follow a set course. We start planning, imagining, and acting on those plans. Then unexpected things start happening, these are our giants, something God can overcome, but we cannot always see what is going on in the background.
So how do we overcome this discouragement? Well the Rabbis point out that Hosea (Save) was given the name Y’hoshua (Ya Saves) which reminded him that it was God who would bring victory, not Israel. Sometimes, God provides us with an outside source of inspiration and strength. This source has many forms, a sign, a word, or even like Hosea, it could be a name change.
The rabbis also noted that Calev had a God given strength, but it was from an internal source. In the passage, there is a list of three places that the twelve men visited. One of those places was Hebron, while it does not say in the text, the rabbis tell us that when they passed through Hebron, Calev turned aside to the cave of Machpeleh, and prayed at the tomb of his ancestors. It was here that Calev was reminded of the promise given to Abraham, that the land would be given to his children. He held on to this promise throughout their journey, and that gave him strength to stand for the Lord when they returned.
In the end, God uses different methods to encourage us in our journey, I am sure God tried to encourage the other ten men, but like many of us, they chose to disregard God’s encouragement and fell into despair, seeing giants when they should have seen grasshoppers. That fear spread to the rest of the congregation, and as a result, thousands died. When we live in despair, or fear, we end up hurting others, whether physically or spiritually. We need the encouragement of God to carry on, but we must also be willing to receive this encouragement from those around us. God used Moses to encourage Hosea through a name change, He used another method to encourage Calev, how has God been encouraging You?