This week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach (Numbers 13-15), has one clear focus: Moving forward. The portion focuses on the 13 Israelite scouts sent forth into the land of Canaan to report back on who and what was in the land. To make a long story short, they find incredible fruits of gigantic size, but also people of gigantic size. The scouts spend forty days looking around, then come back and report on both of these things. Unfortunately, most of the scouts that return bear a bad report, saying that the giant people are too strong to fight, and that it’s not worth it. The minority, Caleb and Joshua, try to get the people to keep faith in God and go forward anyway, but to no avail. The Israelites get mad, say they should just head back to Egypt, and start to throw stones at Aaron, Moses, Joshua, and Caleb, but God swoops down in a cloud to protect them. Per usual, God gets mad and Moses has to talk him out of killing everyone. Instead he just says that this entire generation must die off before he will lead the Israelites into the promised land, and that is that.
The theme of this portion builds pretty well on the last one. Last week, we read about the Israelites attempting to upset the hierarchy laid upon them. Now we see the next step in development – nostalgia and fear of the unknown. The people are being asked to accept a lot in a short period of time. Freedom from slavery, a new hierarchy, a new God, new roles within society, and now, a new land that they’ll have to fight for themselves. Who can’t identify with the impulse to look back on the past in all its shiny glory? It’s arguable that most versions of religion are based on this. We look back in wonderment on the history of our faith, to times when gods and humanity walked together. We raise up our holy books as the lens through which we can recount what it meant to, long ago when things were ever so different and so much better, see the divine face to face. In fact, in Jewish literature, Heaven, or the World To Come, is also often called “Gan Eden,” or the Garden of Eden. How’s that for looking back? Even the future is the past!
I know I fall into this trap all of the time. Wouldn’t it be nice to just be able to go back to the way it was 10 years ago, when I didn’t have as many responsibilities? Wouldn’t it be better to attempt to recreate that, rather than struggling forward into the unknown? Who’s to say that this future I see before me isn’t just going to be a big fat flop? What if the great giants that are already in the space I’m geared up to attempt to occupy are just going to use their power to destroy me before I can even get what I’m working for? Might as well turn back now and just go back to what I’m used to.
This impulse, to over exaggerate the dangers of the future while playing down the hardships of the past, may be as much of a limiting factor to the progress of humanity as sheer laziness. The deep, dark fear of the unknown mixed with our incredible ability for selective memory of the past holds us back from both being present in the present, and from acting upon our futures. It’s quite easy to claim that with a direct connection to a deity of untold power we wouldn’t balk on the possibilities of the future for a second, but this clearly wasn’t the case for the Israelites. They were still haunted by the fear of failure.
In spite of their fears and faithlessness (keep in mind, these folks have seen God do some pretty heavy things, like the Ten Plagues, splitting the Red Sea, and pretty much explode a mountain), the Israelites end up making it into the land of Canaan a couple of books later, in the book Joshua. This also happens to be the haftarah portion for the week – Joshua sending spies into Canaan again and then leading the conquest of the land. This Torah portion, especially linked to the haftarah portion, points to the incredible uselessness of the fear of failure. To quote a wonderful TED talk by Regina Dugan, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”
Dr. Dugan is speaking about human achievements in technology at DARPA. I try not to be too cynical, but it is much easier to not be worried about failure when you’re the director of a government agency with a $3.2 billion budget. If anything is comparable today to having the support of a deity, though, I’d say this would be it. We all wish we had something akin to this week’s haftarah (or a budget in the billions) to help assuage fears about the future, but unfortunately, all we really have is the fact that we’ve made it this far. Now, I’m not claiming that I’ve had God descend in a cloud of smoke in front of me and tell me that I am certainly going to get anywhere. I’m generally suspicious of anyone that claims they have. But if instead of looking back to our own personal Egypts with the rose colored glasses of the fearful wanderer, we look back at the actual struggles, hardships, successes, and failures we’ve overcome in the past, we have something very close to as good. We’ve made it to where we are today.