Weekly Davar: Shlach 2023

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Davar Thought

How is it that great men, like the spies, go so wrong? Rashi, in his seminal Torah commentary, says that when the spies were sent on their mission they were all righteous men – human beings looking to do the right thing in their lives and to be of service. And yet, somehow, after forty days travelling around the land of Canaan, they encouraged the Children of Israel to rebel against God? The contrast is glaring.

Maimonides, in his treatise on return to God, says that just as a person can be evil all their life and wake up to completely new insight and change at the moment of their death, so also a person can be a good all their life – and yet fully and wholeheartedly regret the life they have lived at the moment of their death. That is the range of human freewill. All possibilities are on the table for all of us. At all times. The rabbis tell us, ‘don’t trust yourself until the day you die’. Don’t think that you are safe from the misguided and unhelpful choices that you have seen others make in their lives. We are all human and our egos can make any one of us as foolish as any other.  I have seen very sensible people throw away good marriages of thirty and forty years for the sake of whimsical fantasies of a better life, or even just for a few moments of desire and passion. I have seen people throw away careers and reputations, built over decades, in moments of madness. Equally, however, I have seen individuals who have lived lives of crime and immorality wake up – often overnight – to lives dedicated to good and public service. I have seen people who have suffered with addiction for decades, find a new future, free of their slavery.

So, back to my original question, where did the spies go wrong?

I think that for them, like all of us, it boils down to insecurity. They couldn’t handle trusting something beyond their control. The Promised Land was utterly unconquerable in a natural way – inhabited by giants in strongly fortified cities. A slave nation with no military experience had no chance. Instead, their trust needed to be in an invisible and distant God. They needed to embrace the unknown and allow possibility to unfold without being able to visualise how it would do so ahead of time.

In my experience, for most human beings – and for all of us at different times – that’s just too difficult. We want to know in advance, we want certainty, we want it all planned and worked out. The spies, and indeed the Children of Israel, were not ready to embrace the insecurity of the unknown. Their choice was a simple one – to trust or not to trust. And they chose not to.

Insecurity is part of the existential angst inside every one of us. How we deal with insecurity will define, to a great extent, the paths our lives take. If we rebel against it, like the spies, we end up not solving it, but exacerbating it. Instead, we can learn to embrace it and trust that greater forces are at play in our lives – just as our physical bodies function well for us, so too our emotional and spiritual worlds. We are guided by something greater, and falling into that trusting feeling, a feeling that is there for all of us should we seek it, is the only road that will lead to the security that we all crave.

Shabbat Shalom,

Shaul

Parsha in a Nutshell

This week’s portion focuses on the tragic story of the spies who were sent by Moses to check out the land of Canaan. They return with a negative report – it is a land that eats its inhabitants. It cannot be conquered. A land of giants…. While the women, as usual, stood strong and insisted on entering Israel nevertheless, then men were terrified. In spite of the miracles they had witnessed, they were unwilling to put their trust in God. God responded that they were most welcome to spend another 40 years in the desert instead. Their children would inherit the land, not them. This was not a punishment, merely a granting of that which they wanted – that they should not have to enter the land of Israel. God doesn’t ‘punish’. He just leads us in a way that we have chosen, whatever the consequences.

The portion talks of other bits and bobs, but the spies’ story is the main event.

Weekly Davar: Shlach 2022

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Davar Thought

When Moses sent the spies, he changed Hoshea’s name to Joshua. The rabbis understand that he prayed for him. The name Joshua means, ‘God should save you’. Moses knew that there was trouble brewing with the spies and prayed for Joshua to be saved from the social pressure he would face.

I have always wondered, however, why did Moses not pray for any of the other spies? It’s not that the others were already misguided, and he wanted Joshua saved from their bad intentions. We are told that at the time they left, they were all great and righteous men. It also can’t be that Moses felt Joshua was his best bet to come through the experience well because another of the spies, Caleb, also remained true to God without Moses praying for him.

So why did Moses only pray for one of the twelve spies?

I’m going to go out on a limb with a suggestion here. This is my take on it…..

In simple terms, I believe that you pray for someone that you care about. And you don’t for someone you don’t.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there is any harm in praying for someone you don’t feel connected to. It’s certainly a sign of care for humanity. But, in my mind, prayer is about heartfelt feelings, not hocus pocus words. The rabbis say that ‘words from the heart enter the heart’. And that’s true with God also. Words from our hearts, so to speak, enter his. With that in mind, I’m not sure how heartfelt you can be about someone you don’t know or who doesn’t mean a lot to you. And I don’t mean that callously. It’s just very human of us that the vast majority of people in the world don’t mean that much to us. We don’t know them and have no relationship with them. We can love them in theory, but it’s hard to do so in genuine feeling.

And so, for prayer to mean something to us, the person must mean something to us. That’s just a fact of life.

In my mind, Moses knew Joshua very well. He was a close and beloved student of his. The other spies, he knew as a leader of 2.5 million people, but not personally. It’s hard to pray for someone you don’t know. And Moses didn’t. For me, our prayers are only as meaningful as they are heartfelt. Yes, it seems to me that there are those deep lovers of humanity who can pray for anyone – because they care about everyone. But that’s not me. Perhaps it was not Moses either.

In Judaism, there is a concept of regular prayer – whether you mean it or not – to keep in the habit of praying. And that makes sense. But, for me, if I’m going to pray a personal prayer – if it’s not going to be heartfelt and genuine, I’ll find something else to do instead.

By the way, I’ve just published a book on prayer called, ‘Mean What you Pray’! If you are interested in buying a copy, you can easily do so on our website here.

Shabbat Shalom

Parsha in a Nutshell

This week’s portion focuses on the story of the spies who are sent by Moses to check out the land of Israel. They return with a negative report – it is a land that eats its inhabitants. It cannot be conquered. A land of giants…… While the women, as usual, stand strong and insist on entering Israel nevertheless, then men are terrified. In spite of the miracles they have witnessed, they are unwilling to put their trust in God and refuse to enter. God responds that they are most welcome to spend another 40 years in the desert instead. Only their children will inherit the land. This is not a punishment, merely a granting of that which they requested – that they should not have to enter the land of Israel. God always leads us in a way that we have chosen.

The portion talks of other bits and bobs, but the spies’ story is the main event.