Shlach-Lecha: Close to Home

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shlach-Lecha

“At the end of 40 days they returned from scouting the land. They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, and they made their report to them and to the whole community. . . ”  (Bamidbar/Numbers 13:25-26)


This week’s Torah portion contains the famous stories of the spies, who were sent up to scout out the land. Most of the spies came back discouraged, but two, Joshua and Caleb, were full of hope and faith. Their optimism was not great enough to overcome the negativity of the other ten spies, who soon turned the people against Moshe and Aharon.

Disaster ensued: according to the story, God was so incensed by that generations’s  lack of faith and confidence that they were condemned to wander and die in the wilderness, never reaching the Land. We think of the Israelites taking 40 years to wander between Egyptand the Promised Land, but it certainly doesn’t take that long to walk on foot (even in a camp of hundreds of thousands). In fact, the real tragedy is that when they sent the spies from Paran, they were really, really close to their destination!

Harper’s Bible Dictionary has an entry for Paran which suggests that the place from which the spies were sent was along the northern border of the Sinai peninsula, just a bit south of what would become the the territory of Judah. The spies were close enough that going to scout out a wide swath of the Land took only forty days, there and back, which means that the whole camp was only a few days, maybe a week’s journey from the borders of the Land itself.

It seems to me that the Torah wants us to understand that what held the Israelites back was not the physical challenge of entering the land, but the spiritual challenge of changing their world-outlook, being ready to make the transition from slaves to free people, responsible for their nation’s fate. Walking a few hundred kilometers across the desert is easy compared to changing the mental habits of an entire community; they were so close physically, but so far internally.

I recently learned about the concept of the extinction burst, which is a fancy way of saying that the human mind resists mightily to changes in learned behavior, and will often put up a fight as soon as changing a habit or addiction becomes a real possibility.  That sounds like a plausible understanding of the story of the spies: unable to conceive of themselves as responsible for their own fate, the Israelites, against all physical evidence, said simply: we can’t do it. Negativity was the habit; change was the possibility; hope was the requirement.

It was true for them, and it’s so true for us today: the closer we get to real change, the more resistant people and communities become, even if the border is within sight. The Ba’al Shem Tovsaid as much in a parable of prayer: when you get to the place of maximum distraction, that’s when you know you are close to the Divine Presence, for it is like a king heavily guarded- when you meet the guards, you know you’re close to a breakthrough.

When you’re close to the place of promise- keep going!

Shabbat Shalom,


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