If there’s a Torah portion to make you say, “Oy” this one is it. Aside from the Golden Calf, this is the single most tragic story in the Torah. The generation (everyone over 20) will be doomed to die in the desert and God will decree the day to be forever cursed (see Tisha B’Av) because of what transpires. But the Jews were right at the finish line. WHAT HAPPENED!?
The Jews are just outside the land of Israel (at this time referred to as Canaan). The people elect to send in 12 scouts (Hebrew word meraglim) to spy out the land. When the meraglim return, most of them report (with the exception of 2, Joshua and Caleb) that though the land is great there’s no way they’ll be able to conquer it. Their odds are worse than Jon Snow trying to take Winterfell from Ramsey Bolton. Yes, I just did a Game of Thrones reference in my Torah blog. Now here’s a picture of Wun-Wun to illustrate what the meraglim said was awaiting the Jews in Canaan.
The Jews despair and break into open rebellion against Moses, demanding a return to Egypt. It gets so bad that they are about to stone Joshua and Caleb, but God intervenes. He decrees that only once all the current generation has died, will thechildren get to enter the land. The people, desperate to make right, mount an offensive to try the take the land, but without God’s help are soundly defeated.
What Was So Bad?
The Jews have messed up a lot over the course of this Book. God directly refers to them as having offended Him 10 times now (Bamidbar 14:22). Who’s ever heard of a 10 strikes and you’re out policy? And just last week, Moses had pretty much given up on this “stiff necked people.” Why was this the straw that broke the camel’s back? To help understand let’s look at the opening line of the parsha.
Hashem spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Send forth men, if you please, and let them spy out the Land of Canaan that I give to the Children of Israel.’ (Bamidbar 13:1-2)
You may notice two odd things about that sentence. 1) When does God ever say, “If you please?” God usually talks in commands. Do this, don’t do that. You really don’t see, If you’ve got time for… or Maybe you should consider… And the 2) If God says He is going to give you some real estate, what do you need to send out spies for?
The Rabbis explain these two oddities as having the same cause. The Jews didn’t really want to enter the land of Israel and were looking for a way out. God said “If you please,” because it was the people who wanted the meraglim to spy out the land and so God let them do so.
Quitting Just Before the Finish Line
How could the Rabbis possibly say that the Jewish people didn’t want to enter the land of Israel? What, they came all this way for the desert scenery? Of course they wanted to enter the land of Israel. But the Rabbis are pointing out a mentality almost all of us have had before.
When people are faced with a new responsibility, a new turning point in life, there is often a tremendous fear to back out. Graduating from college going into the real world for the first time. Buying a house. Good luck if you’re not a nervous wreck before having your first child. In fact, for Jewish weddings there is guy whose sole job is to be with the groom at all times to make sure he doesn’t chicken out and run away. These are major life changes that are overwhelming, unfamiliar, and downright terrifying. And they all pale in comparison to what the Jews were about to embark upon.
They had spent hundreds of years in slavery to suddenly be given their independence. Then for over a year they were protected by God, food waiting at their door steps. Now it would be time for them to take up the mantle of responsibility, conquer Canaan and build the land of Israel. Everything had been leading up to this. And when it came to actually seeing what needed to be done, they started to panic and searched desperately for a way out. Looking for any reason to quit.
So what should the Jewish people have done? What were they missing sight of? Most answers will say they lacked emunah and bitachon. The simplest translation means to have faith in God and that things will turn out for the best. (Though you can click here for a deeper explanation.) But how does one keep the mindset of emunah when everything in their life is about to turn upside down?
At that point you can either focus on all the things that have broken you or you can focus on all the things that have made you strong and gotten you where you are today. And if you’re really honest about those things you will find plenty of reasons to keep going. Because there are literally hundreds of people praying for just the chance to have the opportunities you’re freaking out about. But God has brought you to it, as he brought the Jewish people through split waters, the warring nation of Amalek, the revelation at Sinai, and hundreds of other miracles. Leave doubt behind and focus on finishing strong.