Parshat Shelach – Where was God’s Empathy?

The concept of empathy has become borderline cliche over the last decade. In all interpersonal realms — whether in our closest relationships with family and friends or in our workplaces — experts warn us that interacting without experiencing and conveying empathy is ineffective at best, and emotionally harmful at worst. We must be supportive, non-judgemental, and validate others, especially in the toughest situations. With this in mind, reading God’s harsh reaction to the Israelites’ resistance about entering Israel leaves us with some serious questions: how could God lack empathy for the Israelite’s fears? They have been through unimaginable oppression and suffering for their whole lives at the hands of the Egyptians (See Ibn Ezra, Exodus 14:13).  How were they supposed to transition from an enslaved people to leaders and decision makers?  Where was God’s empathy? Did He, who “alone know[s] the hearts of all people (I Kings 8:39), really identify with the source of their fear? 

The expectation that Israel would be able to establish a polity in their new homeland a year and half after the Exodus seems almost preposterous. After the splitting of the Red Sea and the Revelation at Sinai, they nonetheless worship an idolatrous Golden Calf when Moses disappears for a mere forty days. As soon as Moses announces that they will begin the process of entering the land (Numbers 10:29), the nation begins to spiral. They complain about who knows what (Numbers 11:1) and then demand that God provide them with meat of all things. They are clearly not ready. How could God really expect more?

But look closer- God is brimming with empathy. Understanding Israel’s fragile state, God helps their transition and proposes that Israel send twelve scouts to report on the land (Numbers 13:1-2). The people will then have some familiarity about the territory that they are about to call their new home. These recruitment officers will calm Israel’s fears of the unknown and energize the people by showing them the nature of the land, symbolized by a sampling of its remarkable fruit.  They all report favorably on the land itself, but then unexpectedly, ten of them state that the current inhabitants are too strong and land is unconquerable (Numbers 13:28). 

Moses in fact confirms Israel’s fears: indeed, they will encounter formidable enemies (Deuteronomy 9:1-2). In response, Joshua and Caleb assert that God will make Israel succeed (Numbers 14:8). However, instead of trusting that God identifies with their fears but nonetheless deems them able to face the upcoming challenges, Israel listens to the ten scouts and would rather return to their Egyptian bondage (Numbers 14:4). God punishes them with forty years of wandering. His decision to punish them signals that He decides they are  responsible for taking the next step and acting. Since they do not, they will face the consequences.

In my years studying education and working in different classroom settings, I observed too many scenarios where it seems the end goal is demonstrating empathy and giving words of encouragement, without proceeding to the essential next step of insisting that the student move along on the path toward adulthood. Teachers who display displeasure or ostensibly pass judgement are seen as emotionally harming students. But what if this recipe of validating minus expectations stunts our students’ growth? Could our inability to move beyond validation unintentionally thwart their entrance to the Promised Land? 

Just as children need proper nourishment to physically grow, they need love, support AND accountable standards of behavior to mentally develop, to learn how to process nuance and receive performance feedback in healthy ways. Their teachers need to judge their poor behavior and unmet expectations.  Otherwise, they risk remaining a child in perpetual teenagehood. Unlike teenagers who think that they are indestructible and revel in the present, adults live with the consciousness that their individual life is finite and that they need to perpetuate civilization. It is a life of responsibility and building. Make no mistake: sometimes missing these opportunities is a point of no return. When a group of Israelites repents and attempts to enter the land the next day, it is too late. Israel has lost this opportunity. 

Extending adolescence has been the trend in the past few decades. Emerging adults now reach major adult benchmarks, like holding down a job, owning a home, getting married, and having children a decade later than in the past. These are critical steps for planning one’s future and the next generation, and this extended teenagehood wastes precious time for the necessary building. Sometimes, one chooses a career too late to save money to make a downpayment on a home, limiting further financial investments. Procreating also has natural time limits. Even as every year brings astounding advances to prolong and preserve fertility, these paths are still generally far more emotionally and financially taxing.  

An environment in which we are validated with empathy but then expected to work hard and overcome challenges will prepare us for life’s demands regardless of whether we like them or feel ready for them. After all, rarely are we privileged to determine the hurdles that we will face on our terms. 

Israel suffered physically and psychologically under Egyptian slavery. They were traumatized and escaped with broken spirits. Of course empathy was in order. God however, teaches that empathy needs to be followed by expectations. The way for them to grow was to rise to the challenge. By acting courageously even before they are there emotionally, they would become stronger. They would change themselves. This improved nation would then be ready to establish its polity and truly be free.

About the Author
Rabbi Rafi Eis is the Executive Director at the Herzl Institute.
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