In this week’s Torah portion, Shelah Lekha, we read the famous “Spies” narrative. In this parasha, God commands Moses to send out twelve men, one from each of the tribes of Israel, to scout out the land of Canaan, the land that God has promised to the people of Israel. In Numbers 13:17-18, Moses tells these spies to “go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many?” Scouting out the land is no different than what professional sports teams do. A baseball team sends out an advanced scout to observe a team days before they play against each other, to note the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses. The Israelites were not promised a barren and empty land for the taking. The land that God had promised was a land inhabited by many nations.
The Israelites wanted to scout these nations, and the land itself, before moving forward on their journey. Such advanced scouting work makes sense, but it is interesting that God, who had promised this land to the chosen people, commands this act of scouting. If God promised this land, why does God need the Israelites to scout it out first? If God knew the Israelites would ultimately settle in this land, why are the Israelites concerned about the strength or size of the nations already dwelling in Canaan?
The answer is in the language of God’s command. In Numbers 13:2, God tells Moses Shelah lekha, to not just send spies, but to “send for yourself.” Such a scouting journey is not a journey that God needs (even if God commands this journey.) Rather, it is a journey that the people need to go on for themselves, to deepen their faith in God, and to deepen their faith in themselves.
As I learned from my father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, that Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught that the book of Ezekiel begins with the verse “the Heavens opened and I saw visions of God,” because the first letter of each of these words in Hebrew form the Hebrew word Emunah, meaning ‘faith.’ When you believe in God, you see God. When one lacks faith in God, one has trouble seeing and also lacks faith in himself.
What are the journeys that we take in our own lives because they are journeys that we need to take for ourselves? Interestingly, such a journey had negative consequences and results. Still, it was an experience that the Israelites needed to have. Can we each grow in a failed experience? Is there value and personal growth in that experience, even when the results are negative? Is our faith only strengthened in the everyday miracles of our lives, or do we also find faith in God when we struggle and create doubt?
May we all have faith in ourselves, and in turn find faith in God. Shabbat Shalom!
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky