by Marina Sherman
B’naiture 2012-2014 graduate
B’hootz Teen Mentor 2014-present
19 Sivan 5775 | June 5, 2015
This week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, includes the famous story of the 12 spies sent to scout the Promised land… At the beginning of the Torah portion, God sends a leader from each of the 12 tribes to scout the Land of Canaan. The scouts are gone exploring for 40 days, and when they come back, they go to Moses, Aaron, and the community, and describe what they saw.
Ten of the scouts say that while the land is flowing with milk and honey, and there are also some terrible things. The cities are huge and not very pleasant and the people seem like giants! The whole community is terrified and panicked. They wonder why God would tell them to go to such a dangerous land.
But two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, have a completely different interpretation. They think the new land is pretty sweet. God wouldn’t send them to a bad land! The land is ideal for them. They say that it will be fine, because God has protected the community and will continue to do so. The community does not listen, because Caleb and Joshua are only two out of the 12 scouts.
God is infuriated—after everything that God has done for the people, they still don’t trust in God. As a punishment, God decides that the whole community will wander in the desert for 40 years.
I read several commentaries about this Torah portion to get some perspective on the story. I noticed two themes in many of the commentaries: first, the writers focused on the expectations the spies had — even before they got to the land — and the effect it had on their experience. And, several of the commentaries talked about peer pressure.
In one commentary, Rabbi DovBer Pinson says, “[The spies] looked for the negative and found the negative. We don’t see things the way they are, rather, we perceive things the way we are.” The reason all of the scouts reported bad things is because they went into the task looking for something negative about the new land. Their pessimism ended up sentencing the whole community to 40 years in the desert. Rabbi Pinson concludes his commentary saying, “We must choose [the] people in our lives carefully, for their biases will affect the advice they give us and the path we ultimately take.”
Another commentary I read, by Dr. Tamar Frankiel, also focused on the effect of others’ opinions on our own. She thinks that peer pressure affected some of the spies. The spies got scared and needed to express their own opinion. I think that the story would have had a much happier ending if all of the spies said what they thought. I bet that there were some spies who went with the popular opinion and left Caleb and Joshua to say what they thought, while they sat back to see what would happen.
Ten of the scouts report back bad things about the new land God had sent them to investigate. I don’t think that all of the scouts shared the same “this place is scary and dangerous” opinion — I think that some of them might have been following a leader. Only one powerful person needs to say bad things and that can lead to everyone else saying the same thing just because they want to follow status quo. Rashi, a 12th century Torah scholar, says that it may be the other 10 spies’ self-negativity that is making them not want to live in the new land. Rashi says that the spies chose a “fate of fear.”
Maybe there was one leader who influenced the others to see things in the most negative way. Or, one of scouts could have been having a bad day or been very shy — the little things matter. Not speaking up cost these scouts a huge consequence that could have been avoided very easily. Or maybe it’s not that easy to stand your ground?
People not having faith in God and not trusting God also shaped the opinion that they had. Joshua and Caleb were the only two that said good things about the land — and they trusted God. Why did they voice their opinion? Was it because they had nothing to lose and didn’t succumb to the popular opinion? They were more mature and more comfortable in their own skin. Just like the spies, we make choices that seem small but can have very big impacts.
A lot of what we experience in our lives is based on our attitudes, biases and expectations. You always have the ability to make a situation better or worse than it is. Your attitude and expectations have an impact on what you experience.
Some of our biases are self-made, but others are shaped by our friends and mentors. If you hang out with or follow someone who has an optimistic attitude, that will affect you a lot. For the past few years I have been involved in a Jewish, nature-based learning program called B’naiture. In the program, kids are connected to mentors who are their leaders. In 5th and 6th grade I was a part of the B’naiture program, and this year, I became a teen mentor for B’hootz, Wilderness Torah’s program for younger kids. I have really enjoyed the whole process. In my years in Wilderness Torah programs, I have spent a night alone outdoors, learned how to create and tend a fire, and explored more about nature, myself, and Judaism. Most importantly, I went from not really knowing the role of mentors to actually becoming a mentor myself.
From my experience with Wilderness Torah, I’ve seen that mentors shape our experiences by both how and how much they teach. I found it was much more interesting to go exploring not knowing where I was going, even if it meant going off trail a bit. My mentors went on the trail knowing everything (the mileage, the terrain, our location, and all of the critical details).
They held the responsibility of knowing — and they helped shape our experiences by telling us just enough. I came to really respect my mentors and their teachings. In fact, having my mentors encourage me to believe in myself and in something greater, like God or spirit, is part of why I am where I am today.
My Torah portion is very informational, it has made me think more about biases and my attitude towards things. It has also made me more aware of how small actions can mean a whole lot!