The Israelites treated the spies’ good news as fake news

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This week’s Torah portion is Sh’lach Lecha, Numbers 13:1-15:41.

Some of us seem to be eternal optimists, while others are pessimists about most everything. This seems also to be the case in our Torah portion.


After two intensive years of preparation in the wilderness of Sinai, 12 spies are sent by Moses to scout out the new land. Everyone was ready to cross over and inherit a land “flowing with milk and honey.”

After 40 days of scouting, only two out of the 12 spies return with a favorable report. The result is disastrous. The Torah records that the entire community raised a hubbub and began to shout. That night, the peoplewept. All the Israelites complained to Moses and Aaron. The entire community was saying: “We wish we had died in Egypt! We should have died in this desert! Why is God bringing us to this land to die by the sword? Our wives and children will be captives! It would be best to go back to Egypt!” (Numbers 14:1-3).

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The Israelite nation seems so fickle and weak-minded, so easily succumbing to complaints and fears. Even the two positive reports of Joshua and Caleb seem of little use. The gigantic cluster of grapes draped on a pole carried on their shoulders was not sufficient to allay the pessimism of the nation. “Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before the whole assembled Israelite community” (Numbers 14:4).

It is so disheartening, year after year, reading this part of the Torah in the synagogue. We always wonder: How could they be like that? Can’t they have faith in God, in Moses, in themselves? Apparently, they could not.


But how many of us are like the 10 pessimistic spies and the faithless nation, jumping to conclusions that are unfounded? Who is guilty of such a rush to condemn, to accuse, to find guilty? Seemingly, the majority in our society. This is no different than the majority of Israelite scouts and the Israelite nation thousands of years ago.

The reaction to the spies is considered to be the biggest failing of the Israelite nation, thus they were condemned to have their “carcasses rot in the desert” during 40 years of wanderings. God accounted each day of scouting out the land, as one year of wandering in the desert leading up to the 40 years. Only the next generation would survive this calamity and be deemed worthy to inherit the land, to be known as Israel.

How seriously should we take this lesson of negativity? Is a day of pessimism the equal of a year’s worth of wanderings? Is the cup half full or half empty in your life? That first generation could not change. Lesson after lesson, God’s hand was in their lives — the manna, the quail, the pillar of cloud and of fire were to no avail. Only the next generation was able to overcome the pitfalls of their parents and grandparents. They learned positive lessons from the negatives they saw.

We, too, must overcome these tendencies, and be optimists, looking for the good in everything in our lives. n

Rabbi Sanford H. Shudnow served 22 years as a Navy chaplain.

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