Sermon Shelach Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum June 24, 2006 28 Sivan 5766
In this morning’s Biblical chapter, Shelach, we delve into the sensitive areas of a person’s darker side, particular that of jealousy, desire and ambition. In Ethics of the Fathers (4:28) Rabbi Elazar HaKappar said: "Envy, desire and ambition removes one from the world."
Shelach represents a very painful part of the history of our people. One person from each of the twelve tribes had attained an important and respected position as leader. Those twelve people were given the responsibility to scout out or "spy on" the Holy Land, then report back on what he had seen. An entire nation’s future was based on the results of each report.
Of the twelve spies sent on the mission, ten returned with a negative and more importantly, untruthful report. The other two, Joshua and Caleb returned with a truthful report of their observation. Why, you ask? Why would honorable men who had risen to the highest positions within their tribes risk their reputation and the future of the Jewish nation?
The nation, after all, had already witnessed so many miracles from the Almighty, including the ten plagues upon the Egyptians, the splitting of the Red Sea, receiving manna (the food) from heaven, protection from the desert, not to mention the ultimate freedom from slavery. Why would the ten spies then come back with such a negative report of the land G-d had indicated would belong to the Jewish nation?
The rabbis tell us in the Midrash, that unfortunately, their personal desires superseded the needs of the community. Their focus wasn’t really on what the land up ahead offered, as much as what the future would hold for their role as leader. They didn’t really consider the consequences of their mission. They were most likely thinking that there would be a change in leadership in the new land and someone would take the reins from Moses. With Moses out of the picture, their own positions of leadership would be questioned, possibly eliminated or undermined. However, if the people were stuck and stranded in the desert, the leadership roles would remain unchanged, thus the future of their families would be secured. Sort of the "don’t change horses in midstream" theory.
We are taught that in Western Societies, the majority rules. Is this necessarily a good standard for leadership? Those ten spies were in the majority even though they all conspired to bring back untruthful reports. The majority can sometimes make destructive mistakes that can cause the downfall or death of an entire generation. In this case, the Jews wandered for another thirty-eight years, thereby eliminating the first generation from entering the Holy Land. Only Joshua and Caleb, the two truthful spies, merited surviving the years of wandering the desert to enter Canaan. All the rest died in the desert as a punishment. My dear friends, look at how ambition, at whatever cost, can be destructive, not only personally but to an entire community.
All of us have the opportunity to be role models and leaders. Maybe it is within our own families, our work places or our communities. We need to examine our motivation before making an important decision or giving our opinion. Is this action advancing the welfare of others or is it self-serving?
Western society has become comfortable following the majority, going along with the crowd, bringing issues to committee. You and I know that committees often function well and advance the good and welfare of an organization. At the same time, we have also seen committees self-destruct when members serve with personal motivation, vendettas or have other ego agendas. It is so obvious that the scenarios we are facing today in politics, business and media, parallel this biblical chapter of Shelach. The lessons we learn in Shelach are so relevant to our daily lives. Too often a person enters a political race with a platform based on the good and welfare of the community, only we discover that after winning the election, he or she is actually pursuing some other hidden agenda.
Shelach is a story about the struggle for power and control that came with a terrible price. An entire generation of Jews, save Joshua and Caleb, were forced to die out while wandering the desert because of self-serving leadership.
In addition, there is much to learn about lack of faith. The ungrateful people who bitterly complained to Moses, preferring to return to Egypt instead of soldiering on to Canaan, even after witnessing the miracles in the desert, still chose to believe the misleading and exaggerated reports of the spies. Instead of being gratified, they were unsatisfied. From Shelach we learn the importance of expressing gratitude when a kindness is done, being content with our lot and not focusing on or looking for faults and negativity.
My dear friends, take a deep look into your hearts. Our life is transient and we have a mission to accomplish. We should always try to scrutinize our actions and question our motives. Look before you leap, as the saying goes. How will my actions, opinions, reactions affect others? What far-reaching effects will my actions have on the future of my community? Do we sincerely express feelings of gratitude to others in a timely fashion?
What else do we learn from the story of the spies? There is a tremendous responsibility that comes with power. People with power can elevate a nation or cause it to crumble. The spies were given the responsibility to report the facts. Think of the different ways reporting affects our lives. Lawyers take depositions. A doctor writes medical reports to determine the direction of a patient’s healthcare. A teacher’s evaluation can prevent or promote a student’s eligibility to get into a university. Even simple tasks like a babysitter’s recap of an evening with children when asked, "How were the kid’s tonight?" has severe consequences in the way it is reported. We are constantly being asked for our take on a situation. "What do you think about the war?" Or "How would you handle this?" Before we give an off-the-cuff answer, we should use our intuition and good judgment before answering. It is understanding about human dynamics. Then anytime we are asked to give our opinion, we hold a responsibility associated with the answer. There are consequences. People will act upon the answers or the reports we give.
Everything is subject to interpretation, or worse, misinterpretation. We learn about this at a very early age. In the childhood game of Telephone, children line up and the first child whispers a simple sentence into the next person’s ear. The second child passes the whispered sentence into the next, one-by-one to the end of the line. By the time the sentence reaches the last person, it barely resembles the original statement. Look at our court system for proof of semantics. An accent of inflection can alter the whole meaning of a sentence. The question "Where are you going?" versus "Where are YOU going?" brings a whole new meaning to the same words. A seasoned reporter knows the importance and the power behind the written or spoken word. An experienced journalist will not exaggerate or embellish, but report honestly, objectively and truthfully.
A positive or negative report, as in the case of the twelve spies, is not the sole issue, as long as truth triumphs. G-d knows the truth and rewards those who follow His way. In Shelach, it was the truthful reports of Joshua and Caleb who were rewarded and were allowed to enter the land of Canaan. All the other spies died in the desert.
May G-d grant us the wisdom, understanding and clarity to make proper decisions in life and follow the truthful path of the Torah. Amen.