Twelve scouts were sent by Moshe into the Land of Canaan to find out what sort of land it might be: Moshe, Caleb, plus ten other men. This group of ten is called an edah, from the root which means "to witness." They are a witnessing-community, a microcosm of the entire Israelite community dispatched to bear witness to whatever they might find.
When they enter the land, they find amazing fertility and growth. They also find several native tribes, none of whom are known to be friendly.
The scouts spend forty days exploring the land. In Torah, the number forty represents growth and transformation and change. The Flood lasted for forty days; Moshe spent forty days atop Sinai receiving Torah; and now the scouts spend that same amount of time visiting Canaan.
In the end, most of the scouts quail at the prospect of fighting the people who live in a land where even the fruits are as large as a grown man. They say, "We looked like grasshoppers compared with the natives, and we must have seemed as puny as grasshoppers to them, too."
And God is sorely disappointed. God brought the children of Israel all this way, and now they're too scared to enter. So God says: fine -- none of you who are now alive will enter the land, except for Caleb and Joshua, who didn't doubt Me. The rest of you will wander in the wilderness for forty years, one year for each day that the scouts spent in the land.
I used to see this as a punitive response. Now that I'm a parent, I read it differently.
This generation of Israelites was born into slavery. They were shaped by collective trauma. They can't trust in God's promises, even though they experienced the parting of the Sea and the revelation at Sinai. Spiritually, they are wounded children. They can't feel safe taking risks. And it wasn't reasonable of God to expect them to be other than they are. They aren't ready to fend for themselves; they still need manna, they still need care.
God is the nursing mother who tried to wean Her children too soon. She wanted Her children to experience the wonderful and diverse flavors of the wide world -- but the children weren't ready. They still needed the comfort of a long cuddle and some warm milk. So She resigns herself to nursing for longer than She had planned, and resolves to try to introduce them to new things when they're a little bit older, when they're ready to enjoy the adventure instead of being frightened.
At the very end of this portion, we read the lines which we chant as part of kriat shema, instructing us to put tzitzit on the corners of our garments for all time, that we might remember and do all of God's mitzvot. How might we connect tzitzit with this story of the scouts and their fear?
In our community most people only don tzitzit when we put on a tallit to pray. But in the original meaning of this verse, tzitzit were worn constantly -- just as some Jews still wear them constantly now, on what's called a tallit katan, a kind of undershirt with fringes on the corners. Tzitzit are there to remind us of the mitzvot, those acts which connect us with God.
When we remember that we're always connected with God, we can take courage in that connection. That courage sustains us through life's challenges and adventures.
All of us have moments when we feel like grasshoppers in the eyes of others. All of us have moments when our wounds make us defensive and afraid. But when we allow ourselves the time that we need to heal -- and when we look down at our tzitzit and remember that we're connected with something far greater than ourselves -- we can boldly go wherever life may take us, and we can be secure.
Other divrei Torah for this portion: