Parashat Shelah is the story of a spectacular failure–a failure of nerve. It is also a lesson in the dangers of mob rule, illustrating how a frightened majority can undermine the will of a determined minority, to the detriment of an entire generation. But was the failure inevitable?

Bnei Yisrael were within a few days’ march to their promised land. They were within sight of their goal. They were told to conquer the land en masse. But they could not find it in themselves to trust God to help them do it. And so they lost the chance and were told that they would all die in the desert, leaving the task of claiming the land to those who were born in the desert and raised in freedom.

Learned helplessness

But how could it have been otherwise? We should not forget that this was not a coherent nation; it was a ragtag band of ex-slaves–some with strong family ties to the traditions of Bnei Yisrael, most without such ties.

Something happens to one who is enslaved, especially if he is enslaved from a young age: he comes to distrust his own strength to do anything. But he also cannot trust anyone else. “After all,” he says, “if I cannot help myself, no one else will help me. I must do nothing that risks revealing my weakness, for the weak do not survive.” A free man may say, “God will help me.” But one who is enslaved feels himself enslaved at the will of God. He feels the hand of God in every blow and every cold blast of wind. He does not expect any mercy from God.

Someone in that position cannot undo by an act of faith what experience has beaten into him. He can be rescued and witness incredible wonders (the Parting of the Sea, Manna from heaven), but he will still be prone to distrust. There will be a tendency to see all this as just the raising of hopes in order to dash them when it is all taken away again. Perhaps he is being rescued only in order to make of him an example to others.

And yet….

The chance that the generation of the desert were offered, to trust that God would make up in miracles what they lacked in strength–this was something that they could not believe in, simply by virtue of their past. It was a test that they could not pass. So why was the chance offered to them at all, if they couldn’t pass the test? Was it after all, only meant to make an example of them for future generations? Perhaps….

And yet, for all that that generation was not capable of entering the land, having been degraded by slavery, they were nevertheless seen as worthy of rescue. More importantly, they were the ones who received the Torah! They were the ones whose: “na’aseh v’nishma,” had previously signed the Covenant.  Those words sing in our blood to this day. Perhaps such words could only have been uttered by those who had experienced an aspect of God that we would prefer not to see, and thus knew what it was they were entering into and all its consequences.

Perhaps this is part of what that generation’s example was meant to show: that we can fail at a test–even fail spectacularly–and still be worthy of redemption. The Torah was not given to those who had the strength and trust to conquer the land. It was given to those who had been made to understand the consequences of failure and so could go into it with open eyes.