This week’s parsha, Shlach, holds the story of the scouts. God tells Moses to send scouts to explore the land of promise, one from each tribe. Twelve are chosen. When they reach the land, they find grapes so big that they require two men and a carrying-frame. Upon returning, ten of the scouts say: there are giants there. We felt like grasshoppers. We can’t do this..
Joshua and Caleb argue otherwise. They plead, “don’t be afraid!” (Num. 14:9) But the ten who’ve lost faith carry the day. And their loss of faith is contagious. “If only we had died in Egypt!” the people shout. “Or if only we might die in this wilderness!” The children of Israel don’t have hope that anything will ever become better than they’ve known it to be so far.
And God says, “fine, you know what: if you don’t trust in Me even after everything you’ve just seen, the Exodus, the signs and wonders, you can stay here in the desert for forty more years. When this generation is gone, then I’ll lead the children of Israel into the land of promise. But you are clearly too scarred by the traumas you’ve endured. You don’t get to make it there.”
This year I’m feeling empathy for the minyan of ten who didn’t think they could do it, the ones who said, “I don’t have it in me, and I can’t believe that I ever will. This is too big. I’ve spent my whole life slaving to meet Pharaoh’s demands, or to try to feed my family in traumatic circumstances. All I can see ahead is more grind, and I’ve lost heart for the struggle.”
I suspect we’ve all felt that way. I don’t have it in me, and I can’t believe that I ever will. All I can see ahead is more grind, and I’ve lost heart. Loss can put us in that place. Or depression. Or grief, or overwhelm, or illness, or disappointment – you don’t need me to count the ways. The scouts get a bad rap for losing faith, but I suspect we can all relate to them.
There’s nothing wrong with fear or doubt. “Spirituality” that pretends we never have those feelings is at best incomplete. I don’t think any life is entirely devoid of those – not if we’re paying attention and being real. The place where the scouts got themselves into trouble, I think, was giving in to despair. As Reb Nachman of Breslov teaches, “it is forbidden to despair.”
It’s forbidden because despair means giving up on God’s capacity to lift us out of life’s narrow places. If the “G-word” doesn’t work for you, try: despair is giving up on the possibility of change, the possibility of hope, the possibility of anything ever being better than this. It’s noteworthy that Reb Nachman was depressive. Was he giving the advice he himself most needed to hear?
Enter Caleb and Joshua: the scouts who say, “wait, we can do this.” Sometimes we need to hear that the future can be more than whatever limitations are currently constraining our hearts. When we’re in the narrow place of not being able to see a way out, we need someone to remind us that change is possible and that the future can be sweeter than we can currently see.
These roles – the person who despairs; the person who offers hope for better – aren’t innate. We take turns. Sometimes I'm the one with the reminder that life can be better than we fear, and sometimes I’m the one who needs to be reminded. All of us are the weary souls too demoralized to imagine better, and all of us are the dreamers who can see a better world.
When we despair we need someone to walk with us, to feel with us, and to remind us that when we feel most stuck, change can be waiting in the wings – even (or especially) if we can’t see it. I think about how Isaac might have felt during the akedah: bound, immobile, his father’s knife raised over him – not yet knowing there was a ram waiting just outside the frame.
To be clear: the loved one who is ill may not be cured. The grief that comes with loss can’t be short-circuited. Sometimes what’s broken can’t be repaired. But change is always possible, even if that change is “only” internal. Honestly, internal change can be… everything. Maybe not what is, but how we feel about what is. How we experience what is, and how we respond.
The scouts represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Our mystics associate the tribes with different qualities, weaknesses, and strengths. The cleric, the judge, the scholar, the sufferer: each tribe is linked with a different archetype or journey. In today’s world, I don’t think these energies define us. I suspect we each resonate with different core qualities at different times.
The tribe of Judah, Caleb’s ancestor, is associated with leadership and with gratitude (hoda’ah). And Joshua descends from Ephraim, who is associated with transformation and with thriving even in tight places. These same qualities can fuel us when we accompany each other into tough times, and when we hold on to hope for those who can’t feel it right now themselves.
I’ve come to see God’s threat of a lifetime in the wilderness not as prescriptive but as descriptive. It’s not that our lack of faith is punished by a lifetime of suffering. Rather: when we’re mired in despair, that’s what our lived experience becomes. Our work is to transform the prospect of a lifetime of wilderness wandering into a sacred journey of becoming.
And we can’t do that alone. We all have moments of feeling like grasshoppers faced with giants; we need each other. When we’re in this together the fact of the wilderness is the same, but the internal dynamics and lived experience can be different. And when we hold hope for each other, we keep open the door to possibility, and the promise of blessing, and change.
This is the d'varling that I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)