Having studied and taught Torah for many years now, and honestly, there are some texts that seem archaic and outdated to me; texts that are no longer relevant or reflect an ancient or – and forgive me for this word – even primitive perspective on God, religion and human behavior. Thankfully, our sages in the Talmud and the brilliant commentators who followed them reinterpreted many of these texts, redefining them in more humane and relatable terms, inserting kindness, justice and holiness in those ancient words. It is from those sages and scholars that we understand and learn how to practice Judaism today.
And then there are other texts in the Torah that are so psychologically astute and illuminating, so filled with vision and insight on what is means to be a human being, and how to be a better human being, that it is hard to believe that they were written three thousand years ago.
Some of these texts are presented as straightforward commandments:
“Remember the stranger because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.”
“Justice, justice, you shall pursue.”
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
And some of these texts are presented as narratives, stories about men and women who either rose to the challenges presented to them or failed to live up to their potential because of fear, jealousy, insecurity, or resentment -- universal human qualities which make these narrative timeless and relatable.
This week’s Torah portion contains one such narrative. It is the famous story of the twelve spies. In Parshat Shelach L’cha, the Israelites were approaching the land of Canaan when God commanded Moses to “Send out men to explore the land which I am giving to the sons of Israel.”
Accordingly, each of the tribes sent a leader for the exploration. Moses instructed these explorers, “See if the land is good or bad, fertile or lean. Are the people strong or weak, few or numerous? Are the cities opened or fortified?”
Since it was the time for grapes to be in season, the explorers went as far as the Valley of the Grapes. They cut down a cluster of grapes and gathered pomegranates and figs. After forty days of scouting and observing, the twelve spies returned to the encampment and showed Moses and Aaron and the entire community the fruit of the land and said, “We came into the land, and it is indeed flowing with milk and honey. But the people that dwell in the land are too strong, and the cities are greatly fortified.”
This report caused an immediate ripple of alarm among the people.
Caleb spoke up immediately, trying to calm the people, “We can go in and take possession of the land. We are able to do it.”
But the other ten men cried out fearfully, “We cannot go against these people! They are giants and we are but grasshoppers.”
Terrified, the entire community raised its voice in anger, railing against Moses and Aaron. “We would rather have died in Egypt than to have come here to this land to be fallen by a sword! Let us all go back to Egypt.”
Moses and Aaron were devastated as Joshua and Caleb tried to reason with the hysterical Israelites. “If God is pleased with us, God shall bring us into this land and give it to us. These people of the land are not to be feared, for they are our bread. Their protection has parted from them, for God is with us. We need not fear them.”
Their pleas fell on deaf ears. The entire community wanted to pelt Joshua and Caleb and perhaps even Moses and Aaron with stones, and probably would have, until God appeared and stopped them. Deeply angry and disappointed at the Israelites’ lack of faith and trust after witnessing so many miracles -- in Egypt, at Sinai and throughout their trek across the desert -- God gave up in despair. It was at this point that God decreed that this entire generation would wander the desert for forty years (one for each day that the spies had been gone) until they died out, and that only the next generation would inherit and possess the land.
If you analyze this from a psychological perspective, these people, shaped by their slave mentality, by their fears and traumas, by the messages they had been given about their self-worth, and the messages they had absorbed and now gave themselves, rendered them unfit to enter the Promised Land. Despite every indication that God would be with them, the people clung to what was familiar and what they knew even though it had been a miserable existence.
How many of us have become enslaved to our fears or traumas to the point that we become paralyzed and unable to make a necessary change or face a difficult challenge? How many of us have absorbed harmful or unrealistic societal messages which cause us to see ourselves as not good enough, unworthy, or even inferior? How many of us are afraid to confront the obstacles in our lives because we perceive them as giants and ourselves are grasshoppers?
Growing up, I quickly learned that girls were definitely not important as boys. Or at least, I wasn’t. Though my brothers became doctors and lawyers, in my case, finding a husband was considered the only true marker of success. My professional options were limited to becoming a teacher, a nurse, or an occupational therapist – something to fall back on until I had children, of course. Being an avid reader and a writer, I did extremely well in high school and college, graduating at the top of my class. Quite often, my grandmother would lovingly warn me not to be “too smart,” because men did not like women who were smarter than they were.
When I went to the Yale School of Drama to study playwrighting, I was the only woman writer in my class. All the professors were male as well, and I was told time and again that the subjects of my plays were too small, too domestic, too tame, not powerful or violent enough. In other words, they were too female. The professors called me “Susie,” and after belittling my writing, condescendingly told me that I “had to learn how to take criticism.”
By the time I graduated three years later, I was broken. I had no confidence, no faith in myself as a writer, and believed that all my work was worthless. There was no hope and no future for me in the world of playwrights and screenwriters. It was time to give up and stop trying because I would never get anywhere.
I truly felt like a grasshopper in a land of giants.
It only took one small miracle to change the trajectory of my life, but I had to take the first step.
A year after I graduated Yale, I read about a one-act play contest in San Francisco. There was a short play that I had written which I loved – though it had been torn to shreds by my classmates – and I thought maybe, just maybe, it’s not as bad as they think. So, without much hope, I entered my play.
A few weeks later, I received a letter that I was among 50 semifinalists among 600 submissions. A month later, I was notified that I was among the 10 finalists. And then I got the most surprising letter of my life. I had won First Prize and was being flown out to San Francisco where the play would be produced!
That experience gave me the courage to write my Broadway play and after that, screenplays and television movies. It also made me brave enough to leave that world years later when it no longer felt meaningful or fulfilling, and go to Rabbinical School.
Parshat Shelach L’cha teaches us that to give up and refuse to move forward condemns us to a barren life of unfulfillment – a life in a desert. When we cling to what we know, even when it’s destructive, we walk in circles, never achieving our goals or realizing our dreams. When we are so afraid of change or taking a step into new territory, we become paralyzed, condemned to repeat the same self-defeating patterns. These patterns ultimately become our reality – and we become the very thing that we dreaded. Small. Fearful. Helpless. Grasshoppers.
Parshat Shelach L’cha encourages us to be like Joshua and Caleb – willing to take a leap of faith, to embrace change, and be brave enough to enter a future that offers us the possibility of fulfilling our dreams. It teaches us that we don’t have to be enslaved to old ways of thinking about ourselves and about the world.
Parshat Shelach L’cha is one of those Biblical narratives that speak to us through the centuries and exhorts us to find the strength to overcome our fears and negative patterns and finally enter the Promised Land.