Some of the tensest moments when I’m walking the dog arrive when she darts over to some piece of food on the sidewalk. Our pooch, Phoebe, is a rescue, and while she is incredibly sweet, gentle, and intelligent, our kids have speculated that her life prior to that in our home involved scrounging for her next meal — and thus, whenever she comes across anything remotely edible, it winds up in her mouth. Bagels, apples, chicken bones, to say nothing of squirrels and rabbits (or, when she first came to us, the cat’s kitty litter) — all of these have found their way between her jaws.
This isn’t to say that Phoebe isn’t discerning. Generally speaking, she doesn’t eat most of what she sees! As we’re walking along, she might inspect something that, from a distance, looks like it could be food only to find upon arrival that it’s a leaf or a piece of paper. She sniffs, she figures it out, and she moves on. So while she is far from an unbridled omnivore, I would say she evinces a certain amount of (residual?) anxiety around food that causes her close down that bit of space between stimulus and response in which some deliberation (even of the Pavlovian variety) can occur.
Parashat Shelakh Lekha offers us an opportunity to reflect on these dynamics of epistemology and judgment in human life, and particularly in a social-political context. The men Moses sends to scout out the land of Canaan are, according to Rashi, all men of chashivut—significance, importance, distinction. The Torah itself says they are all princes, which signifies that they are aware that their judgments and public utterances will have a shaping effect on the public narrative, and thus on the hearts and minds of the people. If we examine their report, we might identify what went wrong.
One of the first things I notice is that the scouts, while going straight to Moses and Aaron, do so in the presence of the “whole Israelite community” (Num. 13:26). By doing this, they remove the possibility of deliberation with the senior leaders. The entire conversation plays out in public, which raises the stakes and lowers the possibilities for subtlety or discernment.
Next, I notice that their report dwells almost entirely on the military realities—which peoples dwell where, their relative strengths, etc. While affirming that the land “does indeed flow with milk and honey,” the rest of their report stresses which peoples hold which territory. Given that this is playing out in front of the whole community, and that this is the first time these former slaves are hearing from their leaders about their own observations of the land that has been promised to them, they might have wanted to do more to affirm the goodness of the land. Instead, they immediately begin to focus on the threats and limitations they sense. This leads to a sense of narrowness, constriction, scarcity, and anxiety.
Finally, I notice a snowball of negativity that gains momentum in verse 32. Up until this point, we have witnessed a public disagreement between ten scouts on the one side and Caleb (and, left unsaid at this point, Joshua) on the other, about whether the people really can take the land. But when that debate pauses, the ten scouts start to share their own anxiety through the camp by spreading the story that, in fact, the land isn’t so wonderful—that it’s a place that will “devour its inhabitants.” What started as perhaps a kernel of doubt has quickly metastasized into a national panic attack, with the result that the people give up all hope of living: “Better that we would have died in Egypt or in this wilderness!” (14:2) We know what happens next—39 years of wandering in the desert so that this generation could die out and a new generation enter the land.
We could imagine the story differently. What if the scouts hadn’t gone straight to a press conference / tweeted / published their TikTok video, but instead had a private conversation with Moses and Aaron to deliberate? What if they had kept in mind how their description of reality would shape the people’s experience? What if they had engaged in some practices to notice and manage their anxieties, rather than projecting them out to everyone? The outcome might have been different.
We live in a time when the space between private deliberation and public broadcast often seems dangerously small. We are surrounded, even bombarded, by inputs that, without our even being aware of them, shape our attitudes and opinions: news, marketing, entertainment, more marketing… and more marketing after that. One of the results seems to be profound division about what is real and true. As we get increasingly locked into the narrative we’ve told ourselves, and increasingly invested in maintaining that narrative, we become, like Phoebe finding a dead squirrel on our walk, impulsive rather than deliberative. The anxiety is understandable. But the consequences are awful (and expensive—as anyone who has taken a dog to the vet ER will know).
Parashat Shelakh Lekha closes with the mitzvah of tzitzit, the fringes we create on a four-cornered garment. The Torah articulates the purpose of the mitzvah: “Look at it and recall all the mitzvot of the Holy One and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge” (15:39). Tzitzit is a practice of creating and holding open time for contemplation, space for discernment, so that we can align our behavior with our intention. As the Torah indicates, it is our opportunity to remember the exodus from Egypt—the journey out of narrowness and constriction in our minds and hearts—that we can, and must, come back to day by day, moment by moment. I hope we can support one another in doing so—our lives, our society, and our world depend on it.