Parashat Shelach Lecha
Faith and Fear
June 16, 2017
22 Sivan 5777
Candle Lighting: 7:40 p.m.
The parsha of Shelach Lecha begins with the well-known story of the spies who were sent by Moses to survey the land of Canaan at the request of the people. The spies, except for Joshua and Caleb, and the generation of those taken out of Egypt were punished with wandering through the desert for 40 years and were not allowed to enter into the Promised Land. It is sometimes hard to understand how 12 leaders, hand picked by Moses, could see the same thing and come up with different conclusions. It truly was “a land flowing with milk and honey.” They had quite recently witnessed so many miracles from God as they left Egypt, and, yet, they were afraid and did not have enough faith. One Midrash interpretation is that this was really not all for the bad. It was clear that the Israelites were not ready to enter Israel. In truth, they needed time in the desert to grow spiritually, and to gain a greater confidence and trust in God.
Some rabbis have suggested that these spies were not afraid of failures such as being defeated by other tribes or not being able to survive in this new land. Instead, they were afraid of success and the uncertainty of it. At the time that the spies set out, the Israelites were living in the desert, receiving manna from heaven, drinking water from an endless well and enjoying an incredibly close relationship with God.
If they entered this new land, they would have to fight battles, maintain an army, create an economy, farm the land, worry about whether there would be enough rain to produce a crop, and all the other thousand distractions that come from living in the world. They would be so preoccupied with mundane and material pursuits that they could no longer spend all their time learning Torah and being close to God.
Jewish spirituality lives in the midst of life itself, the life of society and its institutions. To create spirituality we have to battle with two kinds of fear: fear of failure and fear of success. We are all familiar with the idea of fear of failure. It is what keeps many of us from taking risks, preferring instead to stay within our comfort zone. No less real, though, is fear of success. We tell ourselves and our friends that we want to succeed, but often, unconsciously, we fear what success may bring: new responsibilities, expectations on the part of others that we may find hard to fulfill, and so on. So we fail to become what we might have become had someone given us faith in ourselves. Both types of fear come from the reluctance to take risks. Faith is the courage to take risks. It is not certainty; it is the ability to live with uncertainty
Of course, we all know of people who are struggling with depression or difficult situations and are offered help but refuse to take it. Why is that? My feeling is that even though they feel awful, they are comfortable with this depression and it is a known and familiar companion. Happiness or success is an unknown quality and there is no assurance as to how things will turn out or if they will be truly better. It’s a risk and it can be scary.
It is easy to find God in total seclusion and escape from responsibility. It is hard to find God in the office, in business, in farms and fields and factories and finance. But it is our challenge as Jews. The Jewish task is not to fear the real world but to enter and transform it. That is what the spies did not understand.
This parsha teaches us that the same circumstances can be viewed differently and that faith can overcome fear. How we react to the curves that life throws us defines us and clarifies our goals and opportunities for growth. Let us focus on taking a few risks and not being so fearful of success or failure as we try to make our lives, our community and our world a little richer and a little better.
Religious Life Vice President