Why did you bring us this far, only to whither in the desert, or to be slaughtered in the so-called Promised Land? This is the primal question posed by our ancestors in this portion. It is a common primal question we ask ourselves when we are away from home geographically, scared and frightened. It is also the primal question we ask ourselves when we travel inwards, into our deeper souls, through introspection. Where is G-d for us at those times? G-d is often working though other people, right next to us, if we but open our eyes to see them. In Hebrew, we call them melachim, angels. In English, we might call them “helpers.” The late Presbyterian Minister Fred Rogers, affectionately known as Mr. Rogers, taught us, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Shelach might also be called “deja vu.” Why? We are about to find out. Welcome to Abraham Times 12.
What do I mean by that?
Since we usually name a Torah portion by its first significant word, we refer to this Parsha as “Shelach.” However, if we read the first two significant words, we see, “Shelach Lecha.” Now where have we seen that before? It’s when HaShem says to Abraham something very similar. It is when G-d says to Abraham, “Lech Lecha.” And we teach that Lech Lecha can say to Abraham to go away, leave your home, OR to go into yourself, or even both.
Now the instruction is for each of the 12 tribes to select one person to be a spy, to go forth to gather intelligence on the promised land, and to come back and report on the possibilities of going there safely. They go. They spy safely. They return. Safely. Ten say we cannot do it. Two say we can.
The trip out, the time spent spying, and the trip back, all told, took 40 days. Forty days? Is this another coincidence? Moses had just spent 40 days at the top of the mountain while his people lost faith in him. So, here, again, we have a parallel story. Forty days on the journey for spying, and a loss of faith in G-D along the way.
“Why did You bring us this far, only to wither in the desert or to be slaughtered in the so-called promised land,” they whine. Some even think about returning to Egypt. “At least we had fish there,” some said. Would you really return to slavery? The Egyptians, at least at the start, told us to leave, at least after 10 plagues told them we were not worth the trouble.
How many miracles would it take before G-d is convincing to the 10 doubters of the 12?
They came back from the spying trip intact. The same number that went out came back. Shouldn’t that mean something? All 12 had the same field of vision. Despite the milk and honey and the fruits, 10 did not want to take the risk. Two did.
Where are you when it comes to risk-taking? Where are you when you have a choice between a comfort zone and a new place? Where are you when you have your own perspective and when you are part of a ZOOM with 11 others? To have the same land in front of you, to have the same goodness and risk in front of you, but yet to see it differently from each other that comes from going into yourself and bringing your inner self into the equation. It tells us a lot about who you are.
Can you even imagine what it was like to be a spy from the tribes looking down on the promised land and its inhabitants? Without getting caught? When I was in training this week at Touro Medical College, one of the ice breakers we used was to ask everyone in the class to vote on whether they would take an opportunity to be able to fly for a bit or an opportunity to be invisible for a bit. Most took the self-propelled option. I took the invisible option. The 12 spies had to be invisible on that journey. But not to themselves. That is the Shelach Lecha … just like the Lech Lecha to Abraham. They had to go into themselves.
The trip for the spies took 40 days, encompassing the time out, the time spying and the journey back. There is no reference to how long each part took. Assume it took 10 days to get back. For those entire 10 days en route back, 10 of the spies were carrying bad news in their hearts. They were trying to figure out how to BBN, as we call it in Chaplaincy, how to Break Bad News.
Two of the spies were carrying good news in their hearts. How did they process it on the journey back, while they could not tell anyone?
It is safe to assume that human behavior went toward the extremes and toward the group-think. Those who thought it was bad needed consensus and probably thought it was very bad. Those who thought it was good made the story better. BUT, and the BIG BUT is, they had to keep this information inside of themselves.
As a chaplain, I am often involved in “BBN,” or Breaking Bad News situations. I am intrigued by asking doctors how they hold bad news in their minds and in their hearts from the time they see the test results until the time they see the patient, perhaps a few days later, perhaps a few hours later, perhaps only a few minutes later. When you have time to think about Breaking Bad News, you are truly going into your soul — Shelach Lecha. Delivering the Bad News is like sending part of your soul to others.
This is where faith has to come into play. This is where you really need to know yourself before you can work with others with the information your have gathered. This is where you need Shelach Lecha. This is where you need to travel into yourself as you journey out of yourself, gather the intelligence, spin it with your own biases, and then share it with your heart. For the medical teams breaking bad news, you must share it with both your mind and with your heart. To be b’Tzelem Elohim, to be in the image of G-d, to walk in G-d’s ways, you walk the talk of the Shema, with all your heart and with all your soul.
The two who said we can make it, we can do it, Joshua and Caleb, were our cheerleaders. We need cheerleaders in our lives. We need cheerleaders like Joshua and Caleb to tell us what we already know — that we can make it that we can do it, and that G-d has not let us down. Who are your cheerleaders? How many cheerleaders do you have in your life? How do you treasure them? How do you bless them? How, where, and when do you try to be like them? Being like Joshua and Caleb is a great way to be b’tzelem Elohim, to not only be made in the image of G-d, but to journey in the ways of G-d.
Keyn yihi ratzon. So may this be G-d’s will.
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.