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.
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.