This weeks parasha contains one of the turning points in Israel’s history. This event disqualified a whole generation from seeing the fulfillment of YHVH’s promise of Eretz Israel. The whole plan of G-d, which was to see it’s culmination in the conquest of the Land, was put on hold for forty years due to the events in this week’s parasha. The people refused to go, they were afraid, they were rebellious and ultimately, they did not believe in the G-d who had revealed Himself to them and had carried them thus far.
The key is at the end of 13:31 “We can’t attack those people (the descendants of Anak and the other canaanites) they are stronger than us (mimenu).” Mimenu can be translated ‘than us’ or ‘than him’ which would be a reference to G-d. Rashi follows the second interpretation and in reality whichever it is, the meaning ends up being the same. They either said G-d was not able to defeat the canaanites or that G-d was not among them and they could not defeat the canaanites with G-d at their side. There are two possibilities here. Either they thought YHVH was not powerful enough to defeat the canaanites and their gods (YHVH was unable to do it) or G-d was no longer among them and would not help them (YHVH was unwilling to do it).
Possibility one shows that the Israelites had a short memory. G-d brought the most powerful nation at that time to it’s knees, Egypt. Certainly the little city states in Canaan should be no problem. They had forgotten the past while throughout the Torah G-d had called them to remember. Every year Pesach was there to remind them of that great deliverance and the power of G-d to accomplish their salvation. Too often we are like them when we are confronted by a new challenge. The past work of G-d in our lives should provide a platform of growing faith from which we can address new situations. But often we question G-d’s ability to handle things. What kind of G-d do we believe in? If He has called us to a task, He will be with us to accomplish it.
The second possibility is that they were somehow unworthy of G-d’s presence among them due to the difficulties and sins of the journey. In this case they were remembering a past they should not have dwelt on, as we often do. We all sin, we all mess up just as the Israelites did. We get impatient, we do stupid things, we are occasionally rebellious and G-d disciplines us to bring us back on track, just as He did for Israel. G-d is rather pragmatic. He sees a problem and He fixes it and then He goes on. Israel strayed, G-d disciplined, it’s time to move on. He does the same with us if we cooperate. Once the process is completed and the relationship has been restored it’s time to move on. We cannot dwell on the past and we cannot let it destroy G-d’s work in us in the future. While above there are good things we are to remember and gain strength from, this section shows some things that we should forget and not let them sap that same strength from us.
Ultimately, the issue was one of rebellion against the word of G-d regardless of the reason. Rebellion against G-d’s standards and directives. Had they not rebelled, nothing would have been impossible for them. The same goes for us. If we are adhering to G-d’s standards (Torah) we need not let the past hinder us and the future will have limitless possibilities. We will truly become a people and a community that will accomplish even greater things that did the Messiah in whose name we do them.
There is a very important community teaching contained in this week’s parasha, a teaching that has been neglected by Israel since the Babylonian captivity, a teaching that caused no small controversy when preached by the early Naztrim, a teaching that to this day results in division among those who have in any way sought to combine Torah and Messiah in the community of Israel. This essential part of the Torah is as follows:
Numbers 15:14 An alien who lives with you, or who takes up permanent residence among you, and wishes to offer an offering by fire, a pleasing odor to the LORD, shall do as you do. 15 As for the assembly, there shall be for both you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the LORD. 16 You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance.
This is certainly not the only place in the Torah where this is stated but this is rather explicit. There is to be one law, one regulation, one way of doing things for those who are native born and those who are not. The ‘you’ in this verse were the descendants of Avraham, Yitzach and Ya’akov who were promised the land. The ‘alien’ or ‘sojourner’ is the geyr, someone from the ‘outside’ who has chosen to dwell with the people.
You will notice that as the geyr continually appears in the Torah, his ‘label’ never changes. He is never called a ‘child of Avraham’, an ‘adopted son’ or anything else that would indicate what modern Judaism understands as conversion. A proselyte in Judaism since the Babylonian captivity means that one becomes a son or daughter of Avraham through circumcision (if male) and mikveh and one has all the rights and responsibilities that entails. And after going through this process, the Talmud reminds the community that it is forbidden to remind a convert he is a convert, so calling him a geyr, as does the Torah, would be improper. Since the Torah recognizes the difference and has no problem doing so, the Talmud must be talking about something that developed later, something that was not part of the original plan for the community.
The geyr, however, keeps his label, there is something that differentiates him from the native born. Since there is that something, which could be his lack of circumcision, the Torah wants to insure that he is not excluded just because he does not have the right blood in his veins. When the geyr offers a sacrifice, he is to do it just as the native born. The low wall around the second temple that kept the gentiles out was not part of the original plan, these was no such thing in the Mishkan. For the gentile who wants to be part of the community, there is one teaching and one law. There are not the ‘noachide’ laws for the Gentiles and Torah for the Jew. There is one law and one teaching and it is to be so throughout your generations.
An Israelite is not something that is determined by birth but by covenant relationship, by becoming part of a religious and political entity in this world we call Israel. An entity like that cannot exist in harmony when there are different laws for different classes of people. G-d knew that, He knew that if Israel was to fulfill her mission in being a light to the nations and taking the truth to them, there had to be a place, an equal place, for those who came in from those nations and embraced that truth. Therefore, throughout the Torah, the native born are reminded that everyone who embraces the covenant has the same rights and responsibilities. In our parasha, Calev is a perfect example, Calev the Kennizzite (See Gen 15:19, it is exactly the same word, he is not a descendant of Esav). Calev was a leader among the tribe of Judah, a highly respected and distinguished man. Today, Calev the Kenizzite would find himself on the outside looking in in most Messianic, Nazarene and traditional Jewish communities. The Torah says it is not to be so. Let us start judging people not on the basis of birth but on the basis of covenant faithfulness.
Right along with the golden calf, this week’s parasha recounts one of the lowest points in Israel's relationship with YHVH. They are poised to go into the promised land. In order to maximize their military opportunities, they send men in to get the lay of the land and to see if it is as good as G-d had said. We have seen a pattern develop since last week’s parasha of doubting G-d’s abilities. The people grumbled, they complained about the food, they complained about the water. Now, as if they don’t believe G-d will actually do something really good for them, they send men into the land to make sure it lives up to it’s billing. How often have we doubted the good that G-d wants for us. Have we spent too much time in life allowing ourselves to be beaten up that we can’t see the wonderful things that our heavenly father desires for us?
The spies return and they verify the goodness of the land. Ten of them, however, continue the doubting mindset and tell the whole congregation that there is no way they will ever be able to enter it, the people are too big, their walls are to strong, the children of Israel are like bugs underfoot to them. Now keep in mind that the whole point of the establishment of this people since the time of Avraham was to give them this land. The reason they left Egypt was to come into this land. And now they are refusing to go into the land. Is it any wonder that G-d wanted to rid Himself of the whole lot and start over? If they refused to acknowledge the very reason for their existence, if they refused to cooperate with G-d and in doing so receive all the goodness He so wanted to give them, then what was the point in keeping them around?
Moshe interceded and they were granted a reprieve. They would not, however, have the opportunity to see the great things that G-d had for them, they would be forced into the desert for 40 years until they all died. This, apparently, was worse to the Israelites than facing the giants of the land. Sometimes you wonder what was going through their minds. What did they think would be the consequences of their actions. Would they just sit there on the other side of the Jordan? Did they really think going back to Egypt was the answer, returning to slavery if the Egyptians didn’t just slaughter them out of hand? There are always consequences to our actions and too often we don't think about them until it is too late.
For these Israelites it was too late. Now that they understood the results of their actions, they decided to go and take the land. But it was too late. The opportunity was gone forever for this generation. Often we don’t understand this part of our existence, the opportunities we lose and can never regain. There are things we do that can never be undone and they will have ramifications for the rest of our lives. All the sorrys and repentance in the world won’t change it, it did not for the Israelites. It is time we began to soberly consider our actions and choices and how they will affect our future, near and distant. Then we will not have to look back with regret. We, and our Father, will look back on our lives with pride.
Our parasha contains a lot of different information. Chapters 13 and 14 tell the story of the spies and their bad report and the consequences of that report. Chapter 15 starts with elevation offerings, and some other offerings, then talks about intentional and unintentional sin. Then we have the story of the stoning of the man who was gathering sticks on Shabbat. This is followed by the commandments for wearing tzitzit. The next parasha begins with Korachs’s rebellion. The previous parasha ended with the conflict between Moshe and Aaron and Miriam. Are you noticing a pattern here? There is no pattern! We know that the Torah is not always written in chronological order but it seems as if Moshe sat with several barrels of written material-teaching, narrative, legal etc, and just grabbed whatever suited his fancy at the moment and stuck it together. The stories are disjointed, the teaching and legal sections not organized, and often it seems like important material is left out and stuff like the repetitive description of the elder’s gifts is what we are left with. What is the Torah exactly? Literature? Folklore? Law? Teaching? Is it all or any of these things?
Based on the above analysis, I would postulate that the Torah, and much of the Bible itself, has more in common with our dreams than any form of literature. This takes nothing away from it’s importance, in fact, it becomes even more a part of us. After all, our dreams are us and they are true and real! Our dreams deal with an area of our being that defies logic and description. Much of Scripture deals with a plane of awareness many of us have not experienced or even acknowledge and our powers of rational thought are at a loss to try to make sense of it. Contradictions abound, one unrelated event or topic buts up against another. It is mysterious and infinitely analyzable, both our dreams and scripture are multilayered, they create their own time and space and logic. Nothing is accidental from the most trivial nonsensical detail to every convoluted, inverted or contorted character. Both of them seem to come from outside ourselves yet also from deep within when we have moments of understanding, enlightenment. If any or all of this is true, the way we interpret and understand scripture will be very different from the analytical Greek method with it’s rules and logic employed by both the rabbis and the pastors which often end up with hopeless contradiction, empty scientific formula or twisted conclusions.
So we can ask some of the following questions, you can even practice with today’s parasha. What is the underlying emotion for this is often the most reliable element in a dream. What has been our most recent experience? What are the various components of the story/teaching/dream and what are the trivial details. Do not allow embarrassments, disgust or fear distract us. How does it make sense in our own situation? Allow the dream/story/teaching to condense itself and it’s opposites into one truth. Make the dream/teaching/story your own.
That is crucial. Dreams are ours, they come from inside us, and they come from our surrounding circumstances. The characters in the dream are all us-the good, the bad, the ugly. Scripture is the same way. One could look at the Bible as the collective dream of God’s people or of humanity. It is our dream, it is my dream, it is your dream. I am faithful Joshua, a faithless spy, rebellious Korach, Samson strong and weak, David, poet and murderer, prophets true and false, prideful James and John, repentant Peter. They are all in me and I am in them. We are echad.
We have been taught that scripture was revealed to us from God...out there...to people long ago. We must then take it from ‘out there’ and ‘back there’ and apply it to ourselves. But the Torah itself says that these words are not just for you here today but for those far off. Now scripture becomes our story, our dream. We move within it, we interact with it, sometimes we watch it unfold and sometimes it tells us things about ourselves we would rather not know. It contains our hopes, our potential our fears. It has personal meaning to us every time we open it. It’s meaning changes as we change, new things come to light all the time for we are writing it all the time, just as we do our dreams.
The interesting thing about dreams, and about scripture, is that when we try to describe it, it is no longer reality. It is like a book about history, it is nothing like being there no matter how skilled the writer. But the written or spoken words about the dream now take on a life of their own and become subject to interpretation, change, analysis. The key is not to get caught up in the book, it is not real like the dream is. Our life the dream is real, our interaction with God is real, our feelings, emotions and thoughts are real and they defy description, they are beyond simple facts. They are the realm of the poet and artist. We are in the moment of the dream. Don’t analyze, enjoy.
This parasha is about fear. Moshe sent a group of men on a reconnaissance mission, certainly a reasonable military activity, given their circumstances. None of them had been here before, they had no idea of the lay of the land, what the inhabitants were like, how strong they were. They needed to know these things to make reasonable decisions on how to proceed. Moshe also wanted verification that the land was a good as he believed. He had had the revelation about it, now he wanted it confirmed for himself and for everyone. They wanted to know it was worth all the effort. That part was confirmed without a doubt. They also brought the reconnaissance report, although it’s accuracy could be called into question. Yes, the cities were fortified. Yes the people are powerful-but compared to whom? The people were giants-as they saw themselves as small. Then they offered their opinion as to the success of the operation, not something any general wants, especially in front of the rest of the troops. Ten of the men were afraid, very afraid.
Two of them were not. Why? We can perhaps understand Joshua, he hung out at the tent with Moshe and God all the time. He had no need for ‘faith’. He ‘believed’ in the power of YHVH because he saw it every day just as Moshe did. But what about Calev? He did not have this experience. In fact, he was an outsider, not even a descendant of Ya’akov. We don’t know when he joined the group, perhaps he had seen the miracles in Egypt, perhaps not. He certainly didn’t have the inside track Joshua did. Yet he had no fear, he was ready to go and fight and even die for his adopted people. What made him different?
Fear is learned. Children learn it two ways. Either through experience or because someone teaches them. A child learns about hot things because he touches something hot and knows to avoid it or because he believes what someone tells him about it. But fear is not just simply avoiding physical discomfort. Most of us do not ‘fear’ the stove even if we know not to put our hand on it. What we ‘fear’ is the consequences. That is how we teach our children, we teach them to fear the consequences and we do not differentiate the consequences from the action. The consequences we are taught to fear are the reactions of others-disappointment, hysteria, anger, much more so than the physical consequences. Fear then becomes tied to intangible things and they are all related to our ego. We fear embarrassment, bad feelings and emotions and ultimately, the termination of self/ego/individual identity-death. But what is ego? Is it not a fabrication of our minds, a sense of individuality and separateness that is completely artificial?
Fear is our greatest enemy, the force which grips our mind and paralyzes us. Ten spies were paralyzed with fear. They were afraid of failure, they were afraid of the unknown, they may have even been afraid of succeeding and the responsibility that would bring. None of those things were real, they were in the future, a future that had not yet been determined. The future is not reality yet we spend so much time worrying about it that we lose our present, the only reality we have. Joshua and Caleb did not have fear. They had seen two men, Moshe and Aaron, bring mighty Egypt to it’s knees. If two men who recognized their potential as men made in the shadow of God could do that, taking Canaan would be a piece of cake. That is how one puts ten to flight. Ten men are no match for one man who has no fear and a thousand who have no fear can conquer nations. Israel wins wars against overwhelming odds because they have no where else to go, there is no tomorrow, so death is nothing and they fight without fear. It is when we disengage the mind, that place where our made up world of ego and fear reside, that we are capable of extraordinary things. That is when we really live, refusing to stay trapped in a world created by fear. Perfect love, selflessness, drives out fear. It is in such a state that we can move mountains.