One of the most well-known episodes in the Torah is this week’s Torah reading and the incident of the meraglim, the spies. Twelve leaders of the Jewish people are sent to check out the land of Israel in preparation for the upcoming war. When they return, 10 people have a disheartening assessment of the chances of conquest. Two people, Yehoshua and Calev, tell the people to not lose heart, to trust that Hashem is with them, and they will be victorious. Well, you know the whole story. Crying, praying, punishment, 40 years, etc.
This story has been analyzed in countless ways over the millennia but since my work is primarily with teens (or as I like to think of them, proto adults) my heart goes there. What inspiring words of inspiration might have the most resonance with a soon-to-be-independent-young person?
To illustrate what I find most noteworthy about this story (this year) let’s ask: Why were the Jewish people so ready to accept that their future was doomed? I understand that they are hearing a report and may have weighed the voices of 10 more than the voices of just two. But, as the midrash would say, משל למה הדבר דומה, let me offer a parable to illustrate my point. Two of my kids spent this week visiting with my parents in Florida, where all the grass is crab, all the streets are wide, and where the Official State Pastime is going to doctor appointments. Let’s say that 10 people called me with a report that my son hit my mother in shul, and two people reported that they were also there, and that’s not at all what happened. I certainly wouldn’t assume that the 10 people, who are reporting something so bizarre, so impossible, so insane, are right. First of all, if that happened, my mother would have literally killed my son, so, people would be calling to say, hey, your mom killed your son. But be that as it may, I have a great relationship with the proto adult that is my 18-year-old (What? 19? Holy cow I’m old) son. I know it’s just impossible. There are a lot of ridiculous things he is capable of, but not that. And I especially would not believe it in the light of conflicting reports. So obviously the first thing I would do is try to get more information. What exactly happened? I need more facts. But I certainly don’t turn the Assume-the-Worst dial all the way up to 11.
So, if the Jewish people automatically assumed the worst possible report to be true, there are two possibilities that occur to me: 1) As a species, humans are frail and prone to error, and large groups of humans are stupid in relationship to the size of the group. So maybe people just panicked, and Group Think of Fear became What Everybody Knows, and then everyone just wrote about it on Facebook, and they all kept reinforcing it with likes and shares, and then all the cable news people kept parroting the same story lines, and then more panic and more shares and likes and so forth until there was a great flywheel of doom. 2) For some reason they thought it made sense that G-d would just kill them off. They assembled the data they had and concluded; it makes sense.
To explain why they thought that we need a bit of context. You see, with the obvious exception of the Sin of the Golden Calf, things have been going pretty well for the Jewish people since they left Egypt. Crossing the sea, miraculous food and water, getting the Torah, building the mishkan, setting up a type of governmental bureaucracy, dividing up into armed platoons and divisions, basically, doing all the things that a young divinely ordained nation would do. But then everything changes really quickly. In last week’s parsha the Midrash mentions a great failing of the Jewish people only hinted at in the pesukim. The gist of the Midrash is that the Jewish people left Har Sinai, not with joyful hope of new lives under their own vines and fig trees in the land of their forefathers, but with the same joy as a class that has been let out early. “She forgot to give us homework!! Shhhh! Everyone out before she remembers!” They ran with joy from Har Sinai, happy that they were leaving and now they won’t get more mitzvos. The midrash reveals what was in the hearts of the people but the Torah itself is silent on that.
What the Torah DOES tell us is about a conversation between Moshe and his father-in-law. And I think that this is the fulcrum the whole story pivots on. Before this, everything is good, and after this is one bad thing after another. The Jewish people are getting ready to start their journey to their homeland and Yisro is also packing and making plans to leave. But he is planning to go home to Midyan. Moshe asks him to stay. He assures Yisro that he would also enjoy the success that was about to come to the former slaves. He even offered Yisro a position of leadership as a councilor. Yisro said, “Thanks but no thanks,” and headed on his way.
It seems such an odd conversation for the Torah to give us. At MOST it would be an important moment in Moshe’s life, but the Torah is really not in the business of giving us biographical information about our heroes just to satisfy our idle curiosity. This must be something significant.
My suggestion is that this is where it all starts to unravel. The Torah records this incident for all of us because it was quite the episode for all of them. Yisro had established himself as a wise and insightful leader. He knew stuff. And even if he had good, “frum” reasons to go back home (as the sages suggest), it seems unlikely that people would have known that. All decisions, even good ones, have consequences. The suggestion is that the people saw that Yisro left, and that made them start to wonder. Were they really fools to have “flipped out” so quickly? They took on so much, they gave up so much, they are really doing a lot already. Yisro’s decision to leave made them wonder if these mitzvos really are a treasured opportunity. Maybe they are a burden to bear? Maybe the cost of their freedom from Pharoah is slavery to this intangible, non-corporeal G-d? And that price seems to keep going up. Who wouldn’t want to run away at that point?
Yisro leaves and the people think, he’s right, we’re fools to pay such a price, let’s get out of here. And then come the incidents recorded in last week’s parsha. The last of those incidents is something that seems to happen at that time, but is again, at first glance, something really about Moshe and his story, not our history. (See what I did there?)
Last week’s parsha ended with an incident where Miriam spoke gossip about Moshe to their brother Aharon. Ignoring for the moment what the topic was and why it was and all of that, at the end, Miriam is briefly struck with tzara’as and then healed by Hashem after Moshe prays for her. But for a week, Miriam sits outside the camp, in compliance with the rules of a metzorah. And in deference to Miriam, the people delay their travel for that week (see Rashi.) Now if you are just some rando at the time, the great theological lessons of how Moshe’s prophecy was unique, and how prayer is such a powerful force, would not have been public. All people knew was that Miriam got a punishment and was kicked out of the camp.
Well now! Isn’t that a bummer! If even the great and pious Miriam can be struck by Hashem and exiled from the people, then what help is there for little Disney+ watching me? (Side bar: Kenobi is amazing and the little girl who plays young Princess Leia should win an Emmy. She’s EXACTLY what I imagine Leia would have been like at 10 years old. She’s fantastic.) That must have been quite disconcerting.
So the data the people have assembled is: 1) Even Miriam gets punished. 2) The wise Yisro, who is so smart he even gave counsel to Moshe that Hashem accepted, doesn’t want to stay with us. 3) Since we started this journey, we have messed up so many times, and Hashem has punished us so many times, maybe we just aren’t worthy. Maybe we can’t do it.
So they find themselves suddenly unsure if they are worthy of this relationship with Hashem.
The Torah says: וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה עַד־אָ֥נָה יְנַאֲצֻ֖נִי הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֑ה וְעַד־אָ֙נָה֙ לֹא־יַאֲמִ֣ינוּ בִ֔י בְּכֹל֙ הָֽאֹת֔וֹת אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתִי בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ — And Hashem said, how long will this nation provoke me? And how long will they not believe in me with all the signs that I have done in their midst.
I know a typical way of understanding this verse is that Hashem is fed up with the Jewish people for their lack of faith in His existence and ability. I’m suggesting something slightly, but importantly different: How long will they disbelieve My love for them and provoke Me with this constant need to prove My love? After all the signs I did and do, how can they not trust I love them?
So why didn’t they believe in Hashem’s love? Why didn’t they feel worthy? Why were they so able to interpret everything in the worst possible light?
Rav Soloveitchik is quoted in the Mesoras Harav Chumash on Shemos with a comment that seems relevant to this discussion. In the middle of the story of the Sin of the Golden Calf the Rav writes (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the Sin of Adam in the Garden contrasts nicely with the Sin of the Golden Calf. In the garden, Adam’s sin was about his feeling “too big.” Adam thought himself the pinnacle of creation. Who can tell him what to do? Who has the right to tell this majestic being what to eat and what not to eat! By contrast, the Sin of the Golden Calf was about being “too small.” The people felt like they needed Moshe to connect with Hashem. And if he is gone then they need some other intermediary. They can’t possibly connect to Hashem alone.
Even if they were able to bring G-d’s presence down to this world through the work of their own hands, with the mishkan, it still wasn’t enough to break that hopelessness. Even earning back the Clouds of Glory, even after having their wish fulfilled that their camp below become organized like the camp of the angels above, it still wasn’t enough. They could have used the last few days to realize that their actions, good and bad, are so important, the Creator of the Universe cares about each deed and thought. They are that close and that beloved. But they just couldn’t see it.
So when the meraglim returned with a report of being doomed, this just further confirmed their lack of faith in their own worthiness. The report was there were giants, the cities were fortified, the people were strong. And the Jewish people thought, “Of course they are! Why would we deserve anything else. Woe is us!”
So let’s ask the most important question now. Let’s say a person feels alone, unworthy, and abandoned by the Creator. How do you turn it around?
You know, the parsha ends with the mitzvah of tzitzis. It seems to be a bit of a non-sequitur. I’m not sure exactly where the mitzvah belongs. There are brief mentions of it in other parshiyos, but where this whole paragraph about seeing the tzitzis, and especially the blue techeiles string, and remembering the mitzvos and not straying after your eyes, it seems misplaced. Perhaps it belongs in the parsha of the clothes of the Kohanim in the mishkan. Perhaps it fits better in the parshiyos for soldiers dealing with passion in the heat of battle. Or maybe it should be later next to the second paragraph of “Shema,” which is how we experience it daily. But this is an odd place. Unless . . .
The Kli Yakar has a beautiful insight. The Torah says to wear tzitzis, למען תזכרו ועשיתם כל מצותי והייתם קדושים לאלוקיכם. In order that you will remember and do all my mitzvos and you will be holy to your G-d.
How does wearing a string ensure that a person will do all the mitzvos? It seems untrue. The Kli Yakar first points out that sometimes “clothes” are a metaphor for the soul, based on a verse in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes 9:8): “At all times let your clothes be white.” He also points out that in this metaphor, “spiritual clothes” are not like physical clothes in that physical clothes are woven together from individual strings, and that each string by itself scarcely has any value, but the totality of the strings together can cover a body, whereas with “spiritual clothes” that don’t have physical dimensions even one string is enough to cover completely. (And he bases this on Sanhedrin 111, ע”ש). The Kli Yakar goes on to explain that there is a promise, a law of nature, that one mitzvah brings about another.
ואם כן מיד כשעשה מצוה אחת היו כל המצות בכוחו לעשות, אע”פ שלא יצאו מן הכח אל הפועל, מ”מ הדבר שהוא בכח דומה כאילו עשאו. וזהו סוד החוט של תכלת המזכיר את כל מצות ה’, כי על ידו נעשה בגד שלם לנשמה …
And if so, immediately when he does one mitzvah all of the other mitzvos are in his potential to do. And even though they have not yet transitioned from “potential” to “actual,” nevertheless [in spiritual matters] things that are true in potential are also considered as if he did them. And this is the “secret” of the blue techeilet string that reminds us of “all the mitzvos of Hashem,” because through this one blue string, an entire spiritual garment is made . . .
How does the mitzvah of tzitzis offer an antidote to the hopelessness of the Jewish people? I think the lesson of the Kli Yakar is that in G-d’s eyes, our potential matters. We might feel unworthy right now, but we have the capacity to be amazing. We might feel lost and unconnected today, but we can, we should, we deserve to feel loved and cared for. We have the capacity to earn that. And if it’s in our potential, then in the spiritual world it’s already done. We just need to make one small move. Maybe the lesson we can take from the meraglim is to believe in our worthiness because, maybe right now we don’t feel like giants, but we do one mitzvah, and that’s a giant thing.