Ah, so much chaos, so little time.
In this parsha we deal with the message of the spies; insecurity leading to depression and fear; rebellion and anger by the people, Moses and God; and several severe punishments, including the major one of wandering in the desert for an additional 40 years and the minor one (in size and scope, but not in significance) of killing the Shabbat wood collector. We end with a collective breath, and more importantly, a call for awareness and attention to the inner workings of our soul, with the final paragraph instructing us about tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of our garments and tallitot (prayer shawls), which is said daily as the third paragraph of the Shema prayer.
Why is there so much disillusionment, fear and unsettling behavior in this parsha? And what can we learn from the chaos?
In practicing and teaching Jewish meditation — a central focus of my rabbinate work alongside my passion for social justice and peace — I have come to understand that an awareness of our inner spirit can greatly affect how we interpret events in the world around us, as well as how we perceive ourselves and how Judaism can help ground us in lives of meaning and fortitude. After 12 years of almost daily practice, I understand that each day brings new challenges and new barriers, along with old habits and lifelong obstacles, all of which are trying to thwart my progress.
As we say in the liturgy: Just as God renews each day, so, too, must we renew. And this is what I see happening in Shelach Lecha, albeit in reverse order.
The lack of confidence that the spies bring back — embodied in the famous line, “And we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:33) — is a classic case of not being fully aware and awake. The fear that the spies bring back, which may have been justified, overtakes them and causes the entire Israelite people to lose faith, lose hope and react with chaotic perplexity.
In meditation, one can begin to develop a sense of connection to God, one’s own heart and the notion that the more awareness we have in our life, the better decisions we are able to make. We don’t read of the spies taking any time to process their findings, meditate on their experience before sharing it; rather, they blow into the camp, rally the fears of the people and cause a scene that cannot be stopped, one that will climax next week with the rebellion of Korah.
I find it fascinating that this one line about the grasshoppers speaks volumes about the inner life of the spies. Their real mistake was not in sharing their fears, but rather in not being present in their sharing, such that they conveyed not only physical fears, but also their own unprocessed and undifferentiated emotional and spiritual fears.
Moses loses control of the people and almost loses control of the whole exodus enterprise. According to the Talmud, the spies, and thereby the entire people, actually think that not only can’t they overcome the inhabitants of the land, but that even God is outmatched.
In a challenging reading of the text, Sotah 35a says that Numbers 13:31, which reads, “We cannot attack the people, for it is stronger than we,” should be read, “We cannot attack the people, for it is stronger than Him [God].” They translate the word memenu, as “than him,” rather than the traditional reading “than us.” So, in their fear, the spies not only reject the notion of conquering the land, they reject the whole premise that God is with them at all. Without a sense of presence and consciousness, God is lost to them.
And, it is this mentality that causes the overreaction to the man collecting wood on Shabbat. There is so much fear, so much confusion and lack of confidence that the people, including Moses, don’t know how to respond.
I don’t see this story as one telling us that we should kill all those who break rules on Shabbat — we would all be dead! Rather, it’s a parable of what happens when we don’t bring ourselves fully present to any situation in our lives, including religious practice. When we act out of fear, we don’t make good decisions.
It is for this reason that I see the final portion about the tzitzit fitting in. When we stop to contemplate the higher meaning and value in life, a connection to God and our souls, we find ourselves making more healthy decisions. Reading back the idea of tzitzit into the rest of the parsha, I see it as coming as a corrective to the series of fear-induced decisions that plague the people, leading to chaos, 40 years of wandering in the desert and killing someone for a small violation of a newfound religious practice. By taking time to breathe and notice the tzitzit, we find a way to operate more calmly, with greater confidence coupled with greater humility. This combination is a hallmark of Jewish meditation, one that is signified by the gathering of the tzitzit. Certainly, if our ancestors had practiced a bit more awareness meditation, imagine how differently things might have turned out.
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.