All Change is Difficult and Scary
PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Shavuot, Shelach is the Parsha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora. For Parshat Beha’alotecha (this week in the Diaspora) please click here.
Fear of change
We encounter different historical periods that represent quantum leaps of advancement. Some leaps are technological: The development of tools in the Bronze Age was one such leap; the printing press of the 15th century was another; another was the industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Other civilizational leaps occurred in the realm of social structures and ideologies. Written language, created some time around 3200 BCE, was one such game-changer. Demonstration of a heliocentric model for the sun and planets in the 16th century was another. For the Jewish people, the most pivotal era of ideological quantum advancement and change was probably the 40-year sojourn in the desert.
Change can be frightening. Man tends to be more at ease when surrounded by things and experiences that are familiar to him. Changes to those surroundings – even when the changes are positive – can be disorienting and threatening. Gutenberg’s printing press was attacked by monks in the 15th century because they believed that mass production of the Bible by machine would (a) put monks out of work and make them lazy, and (b) put the Bible in the hands of common folk, who weren’t sophisticated enough to interpret the Bible properly. In retrospect, we realize just how absurd these criticisms were. Fear of change has always been the driving force behind resisting advancement, and it continues to this day with what is called “techno-panic.”
A Traumatized Nation
The Jewish people also harbored this great fear, as they were undergoing so many changes all at once. Not only had they been violently ripped from their homes in Egypt; their whole societal system was evolving from a slave class to independent land owners. While an outsider could see how glorious this change was, we can only imagine the great trepidation the Jews experienced when considering all of these changes occurring in such a short span of time. This helps us at least sympathize with their anxious response when hearing the ten Spies’ negative report.
In looking carefully at their report, we note that at no point did the Spies ever dispute the fact that the Land was, as Hashem had promised, a “land flowing with milk and honey.” They used those very words to describe how lush and plentiful the land was, and even brought back produce to prove that point (13:27). In fact, their main complaint was not at all about the quality of the Land, but rather the fearsomeness of the inhabitants. “אֶפֶס כִּי־עַז הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ וְהֶעָרִים בְּצֻרוֹת גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד וְגַם־יְלִדֵי הָעֲנָק רָאִינוּ שָׁם” – “The only thing is, the indigenous nation is strong. The cities are well-fortified, and we saw members of the [fierce] ‘Anak family there.” They further complained about the Amalekites, a hostile nation they had already encountered in the desert, as well as all the other formidable Canaanite tribes (13:27-28).
The Report of the Meraglim
The only statement we can point to where the Spies criticized the actual land is their words (13:32), “אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא” which is usually translated as, “It is a land that consumes its inhabitants.” But Rabbi Joseph ibn Caspi was bothered by this reading. How could they contradict their own glowing report of the beautiful land just a few verses earlier? He instead translated the verse as, “The inhabitants of the Land are consumers.” Instead of “the Land consumes its inhabitants,” it’s rather “the inhabitants consume their Land.” That is, even though the land produces a tremendous amount of bounty, the inhabitants are of such great size and strength, that they have ravenous appetites and consume everything that the Land produces. With this translation, the Spies’ never disparaged the Land itself.
This reading is quite revealing, because it not only was an intimidating testament of how powerful the indigenous tribes of Eretz Israel were. It was also a suggestion that by entering the Land of Israel, we, too, Bnei Israel – even if we do succeed in our conquest – might fall prey to the allure of the Land just as its current inhabitants have. They have become gluttonous consumers of the flowing milk and honey of the Land; what will become of us? Will we not also become the same insatiably hungry nation? Will our wealth and opulence do us in?! This was yet one more frightening adjustment that the Jews realized that they’d need to make, a socio-economic change from being impoverished slaves to wealthy and indulgent land barons.
Work Ethic and Purpose
This reading also provides a new meaning to their expressed fear about their wives and children (14:3): “נָשֵׁינוּ וְטַפֵּנוּ יִהְיוּ לָבַז”. While Onkelos understands the word “לָבַז” as “being taken captives,” the word can also mean “disgrace.” Perhaps what they were saying is that if the Land is so plentiful, then our success will be our failure. Our wives and children will lose their work ethic and become disgraceful couch potatoes instead. We should return to Egypt, so that we can instill within our children the ethic of an honest day’s hard work.
In this sense, Hashem’s decree that they would have to wander the desert for forty years wasn’t so much a punishment but a necessary waiting period of maturation and evolution. Seeing how the people couldn’t handle such a sudden shock to their infrastructures, Hashem decreed that entry into the Land would have to take an entire generation of adjustment before the next generation would be ready to become land owners.
After Hashem’s decree, the Torah details many mitzvos having to do with korbanos (sacrifices) and tithing. This makes sense if the fear of the Jews was that their newfound wealth would corrupt them. Hashem’s response to this legitimate concern was that while wealth can corrupt, it can also be used for very positive things, like bringing gifts from one’s blessings to Hashem and to the Kohanim. The Torah also repeats the laws of the sinner’s sacrifice, to remind the people that while wealth can induce sin, it’s also possible to atone for sin by using that very wealth.
This reading may also explain why our parsha concludes with the story of the “מקשש”, the person who violated Shabbos by gathering sticks. Why did he do it, especially in light of our Sages’ teaching that he was forewarned that his act was a violation of the Torah? Many of our Sages understand that he acted “l’shem Shamayim,” with virtuous intentions. He wanted Bnei Israel to witness that although they were not entering the Promised Land, the mitzvos were still binding upon them.
Perhaps a deeper meaning to his “l’shem Shamayim” was that he wanted to remind Bnei Israel that while their concern about excessive wealth was founded, they also needed to remember that if Hashem is bringing us to a luxurious Land where we’ll be able to occasionally rest, then it is something we can handle. Look how He commanded us to observe Shabbos, a day where we must desist from all work and resist the virtuous impulse for productivity. Note that the only other time that the verb “קשש” is used in the Torah is back in Exodus (5:7 and 5:12) when the Jewish slaves in Egypt were commanded to gather straw to make bricks for their taskmasters.
This man’s stick-gathering was to remind the Jews that hard work should not be romanticized to the point where we forget the suffering we experienced when hard work was taken to the extreme.
We’ve undergone multiple societal paradigm shifts in the last few years. These changes have brought an accompanying anxiety and fear to many within the civilized world. This anxiety has manifested in so many different ways, and it’s been important for the grown-ups in the room to try and restore a sense of calm and normalcy.
A Beautiful Future
Change also occurs within Jewish community. Communities invariably grow, shrink, integrate, or disintegrate. Let’s all try to respond to those changes with positivity and optimism. If you question the change, consider to yourself: Is my criticism founded on a genuine grievance that the change is a bad one? Or, am I romanticizing a past that was beautiful when it existed, but that cannot or will not be any longer?
May we learn to welcome change as part of Hashem’s unfolding plan of ultimate Redemption, may we see it, bb”a.