Shlach Lecha: A Question of Faith
Appeared in June 12, 2014 Washington Jewish Week
This week’s Torah portion is Shelach Lecha, Numbers 13:1-15:41.
What causes some people to have faith and others to doubt? This age old question is played out between this week’s parsha, Shelach Lecha, and its haftarah, Joshua, Chapter 2.
Shelach Lecha begins with the tale of the 12 spies that were sent to scout out the Canaanite territory. B’nei Israel had finally reached their destination; it was time to enter and conquer the land that God had promised them. This had been their destination since leaving slavery in Egypt. But something stopped them. Fear? Second thoughts? A lack of faith in God? Perhaps it was the same condition that had plagued them since they left Egypt - the inability to rid themselves of their slave mentality and transition to the mindset of a free people.
There are two versions of the spy story. In Numbers 13 God says “Shelach Lecha: “Send forth [men] if you please…” to spy out the land. Although God is not keen on the idea of sending in spies, permission is granted, albeit in language that indicates the decision is in fact in Moshe’s hands. Moshe recounts a different version of the story in Deuteronomy 1:22. Here Moshe removes the decision from himself and puts the onus on B’nei Israel. Both cases deal with a crisis of faith.
The God of the Israelites is omniscient and omnipotent and the guardian of the Israelite people. Why would the Almighty have invested such time and energy saving and shepherding His chosen people just to see them slaughtered? The rabbis comment that God had already “scouted out” the land and found it to be suitable. Moshe and the people should have known this.
This week’s haftarah, Joshua, chapter 2, tells the other spy story. Joshua is now leader and sends two spies out into Jericho with the same mission as the original 12 – survey the area for conquest and make a military assessment. There they meet Rahab, a prostitute who shelters them in her home instead of turning them over to the king. When asked why she risked her life to save them she replied "I know that the Lord has given the country to you, because dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the waters of the Sea of Reeds for you when you left Egypt, and what you did to Sichon and Og, the two Amorite kings across the Jordan, whom you doomed. When we heard about it, we lost heart, and no man had any more spirit left because of you; for the Lord your God is the only God in heaven above and on earth below.” (2:9-11)
How interesting. Rahab does the extraordinary and stands up to her king because of her faith in the God of Israel. She and “all the inhabitants of the land” have this faith not because they themselves witnessed God’s miraculous events but because they heard and believed. The Israelite spies and B’nei Israel all witnessed miraculous deeds yet were unable to maintain their faith. As soon as they were challenged, their faith was challenged.
We know the endings of both stories. In Shelach Lecha, the spies return and except for Joshua and Caleb ben Jephunneh, the remaining 10 spin a hyperbolic tale claiming they will never be able to defeat those living in the land. In contrast, the two spies in Joshua return and report: "The Lord has delivered the whole land into our power; in fact, all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before us." (Joshua 2:24).
It boils down to a question of faith.
Questions to consider:
1. How do you define faith in your life?
2. Are you the kind of person who needs to “see it to believe it” or do you “take things on faith”? Are these positions mutually exclusive?
3. How do you think you would have behaved had you been one of the original spies? Do you think you might have been able to fight the prevailing mindset? Have you ever been in a situation that the fear or anxiety you felt overruled your common sense?