Posted By The Stash

This week’s Torah portion narrates the story of the 12 tribal chiefs sent by Moses to scout out the Land of Canaan and confirm that it was indeed the “land of milk and honey.” As you may recall, ten of these scouts were so discouraged by the fortified cities and the might of the inhabitants that they advised against attempting to conquer the Land. Only two scouts—Joshua and Caleb—urged the Israelites to fulfill G-d’s command and conquer Canaan. Surely, they argued, G-d would help those who helped themselves. But the Israelites didn’t listen, and ended up wandering the desert for 38 more years.

The Torah gives two versions of how this tragic story came about. Our account in the Book of BaMidbar (Numbers) indicates that G-d told Moses: “Send scouts if you feel you should.” But the parallel account in the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) states that Moses sent the scouts only after he was pressured by the people who did not believe, despite all the miracles they had witnessed, in the goodness of the Land of Canaan.

Which story is correct is less important than the lesson we can learn. It is clear that Moses was given the option of sending scouts, and he chose wrongly. In hindsight, it was easier to blame the people for “pressuring him” than it was to acknowledge that he would have done better to continue depending directly on the G-d who had guided the people through the desert with a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. Why send scouts if there is a heavenly GPS? But Moses always, as a good leader should do, wanted to wean the people from over reliance on miracles. He knew, as did G-d, that Divine assistance would slowly fade and the Israelites would have to learn to fend for themselves. Perhaps it was best, therefore, if the Israelites themselves scouted the land and took some responsibility for preparing for its conquest. Moses’ reasonable plan turned into a serious miscalculation—and the text from the Book of Devarim reflects his resentment, anguish, and the all too human trait of blaming others for your own errors.

And this is the point the text seeks to make. As Nachmanides argues, Moses made a very serious error of judgment. And Moses, for all that he stood before G-d for 40 days and nights without eating, was still all too human when he descended from the heights. He wanted to deflect the error onto the Israelites. Are we any different? This is the reason the great women and men of the Torah have their humanity and fallibility painted in often upsetting detail. Unlike some religions, Jewish holy people live in this world and try to elevate its spirituality. They often succeed, but they still remain human. Moses may have climbed Sinai and spoken face to face with G-d, but when angry he struck a rock rather than spoke to it. The lips that spoke to G-d still stuttered. He remained far from perfect—and that was the reason for his selection as leader.

We are often too hard on ourselves. We are too worried about errors. We hover over our children and harass them with our “care” as we follow them to university entrance seminars and even job interviews. We need to step back and see what our children can do. True, like the Israelites in our Torah portion, they might fail to rise to the challenge, but how else will they learn independence? It worked for the Israelites then and still works now. We are judged by what we do most of the time for those we love. Our children remember when we yelled, but if we are good parents, the memories of those raised voices pale in comparison to the numerous happy times we shared. What matters are the qualities we deploy most often. So—as the summer days begin and life gets a little more relaxed—breathe, relax, stop reading “How to be a Perfect _____” books and just follow the maxim of our Rabbis: “greet each person cheerfully” and perhaps they’ll do the same to you!

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