During the summer months, Jewish communities all around the world read from the fourth book of the Torah, known in English as “Numbers” and in Hebrew as Bamidbar. The Hebrew word Bamidbar means “in the wilderness,” and the entire events of this book take place in the desert wilderness between Mount Sinai and the Land of Israel.
During these Torah portions, it becomes clear that our ancestors’ journey through the wilderness is not without its hardships. All along the way the fortitude of the Israelite people is tested by a series of both external and internal conflicts. Perhaps the best illustration of this theme within Bamidbar is found within the episode of the Twelve Scouts.
The episode of the Twelve Scouts occurs in the Torah portion Shelach Lecha, and recounts the story when Moses sends twelve scouts into the Land of Israel to report on the inhabitants and terrain of the land. Two of the twelve scouts, Caleb and future leader Joshua, bring back a positive report, “We should go up at once… for we are well able to overcome [the challenges]” (Num. 13:30). The remaining ten scouts bring back a negative report couched in fear and self-doubt, “We are not able to go up… they are stronger than us… and compared to them we are but grasshoppers” (Num 13.32-33).
The fear based mindset of the ten negative scouts spreads throughout the Israelite camp. As a result, God decrees that the people must wait an entire generation of forty years before entering the land of Israel. One of the lessons we gain by retelling this story is that when endeavoring to complete a physical or spiritual journey, the internal anxieties one uncovers can be just as formidable as the external obstacles one encounters.
This summer, may we all find the strength needed for life’s journey through the wisdom of our traditions and the bonds of our community: Chazak, Chazak, Venitchazeik (Be strong, and be made courageous)!
Cantor Jay O’Brien