Human beings are not fond of the unknown. It’s one of the reasons perhaps that many are afraid of dying. Or of getting old. Or being ill. All about not being in control of the day after.
Jewish people like knowing what’s around the corner and sometimes find themselves assuming that what they cannot predict or see in advance must necessarily be bad (whatever that means), dangerous or threatening.
We have no crystal balls to see tomorrow but we have eyes in the back of our heads peering back at yesterday. And further back to generations of golden ages then crushed by persecution, destruction and dispersion. The reality coming out from around the corner has indeed often been as large and as frightening as the shadow would have us think.
Perhaps that’s why Israeli governments and Israelis are increasingly wary about peace processes that do not/cannot chase away the shadows. Perhaps that’s why many Jews find themselves in fight, flight, freeze mode so regularly around the singling out of Israel or when anti-Semites show their hand in North America, Europe and beyond.
Yet, this is not a new phenomenon and both Torah portions which Jewish people will read this Shabbat – Beha’alotcha around the world and Shelach in Israel – bring us historical accounts that cement the sense that change and the unknown sit uncomfortably in our community.
The Jewish people have just had a most spiritual, uplifting, infinitely defining experience at Mt. Sinai – seeing, hearing, experiencing God himself. Complete national unity, the giving of the Torah, a new blueprint for life, wondrous celebration and deepest meaning. Comes the Torah portion Beha’alotcha immediately (at Numbers 11:1) and tells us the kvetching has begun.
“ויהי העם כמתאננים רע באזני יהוה…”
“The people started complaining; it was evil in the ears of God…”
The children of Israel had been on a good ride. Miraculous escape from Egypt and a barely believable event at the splitting of the sea. A pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire that accompanied them everywhere as a form of protection. Now having been encamped at the mountain, fed by the manna food from heaven and the like, the whole idea of moving on was deeply uncomfortable.
Into the wilderness they would go, on the way to a land they have heard promised to them but that they know near nothing about.
Too much for them? Or just complaining for the sake of complaining?
Israelis arrive at Parashat Shelach this week and are greeted by the (in)famous story of the team of spies sent by Moses to have a look at the Promised Land and report back. Ten of the twelve come back and report back they do. To everyone. “They went and came to Moses and to Aaron and to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel” and again in the next sentence we are told again the spies report back to the entire assembly.
These ten men create real doubts in the minds of the people about the path upon which they are being led, about the benefits (if any) of entering their new homeland and they call to question the ability to overcome unfriendly nations there, to survive and thrive there.
The forty years in the desert? Here God decrees it as a response to what he views as a provocation. The unknown was too great for these men – and let it be clear, these were great men representing great families and great tribes. But the unknown brought hesitation and fear of change.
Upon entering the land of Israel, reality would indeed change. The nation would need to fight wars, settle, plan, build, plant and be a serious player itself in the continuation of the national story. God will be there as a partner, but it will be time to get their own hands dirty and make things happen for themselves too.
This causes unsettling moments for the spies and their reports upon their return – to the whole nation rather than to Moses their leader who sent them – brings waves of panic, despair and a new round of complaints to explode among the community.
The year too, still in its first half – has brought us disruption, death, despair and disappointment that we could not have expected. Leaders of communities, of countries, of corporations and organizations are having a great deal asked of them.
We have here two Torah portions this Shabbat that describe two paths at a fork in the road. When faced with unexpected change and tomorrow’s unpredictable scenarios, strong leaders certainly look around them and survey circumstances. They map possibilities.
What they do not do is take their eyes off the ball. The mission and their destination remains central in their thinking – even if it requires a new route, new tactics and a new way of getting from point A to point B or point Z.
Insisted Caleb, one of the two spies who rejected the gloomy analysis of the majority: “We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it!”
Leaders do not put the vehicle – the country, community, our driven organization – into reverse. The panicked shouts then of our ancestral brothers and sisters “Let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt!” teases us to forget from where we came, how far we have already come, and to where we must keep traveling.
This year is one of these moments and as we do with these Biblical stories, perhaps we will look back fondly and in awe of those who keep us focused, grounded and moving forward in 2020 and into the future.