The Terrors of Transition (Parshat Shelach, Numbers 13:1-15:41)

In the Torah portion for this week, Shelach, the Israelites stand at the threshold of the Promised Land, the land of Canaan. Uncertain about what they will find there, scouts are sent ahead -- one from each of the twelve tribes -- to reconnoiter the terrain and assess its inhabitants.

It is a point of great transition in the community's life, and great leadership is required.

When the scouts return 40 days later, they offer a conflicting report about the situation. On one hand, they affirm that Canaan is a place of abundance, a land that is indeed flowing with milk and honey. On the other hand, they claim that the people who live there are fierce and powerful, and that the cities are very large and well fortified. The scouts continue: "The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the Nephilim there... and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them." (Numbers 13: 32-33).

Due to their fear and anxiety about entering this unknown land, the scouts' account of Canaan and its inhabitants seems overly dramatic. They anthropomorphize the land and transform it into a frightening place that "devours" its own people; they also claim to have witnessed the Nephilim (a mysterious, mythic race of giant beings first referenced in Genesis 6:4).

While the scouts' report seems to be a mix of fact and fiction, the reaction of the Israelites is swift and, based on their previous behavior throughout their journey in the Sinai wilderness, predictable:

The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. "If only we had died in the land of Egypt," the whole community shouted at them, "or if only we might die in this wilderness! Why is the Lord taking us to that land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!" And they said to one another, "Let us appoint a captain and return to Egypt" (Numbers 14:1-4).

To a person, all the members of the Israelite community would rather return to the bondage of Egypt than face an unknown future in, and represented by, the land of Canaan. As punishment for their ingratitude and rebelliousness, God decrees that everyone in the current generation twenty years of age and older (with the exceptions of Caleb and Joshua, who try to exhort their people onward) will die in the desert before reaching the Promised Land. After forty years of wandering, the older generation does die, and the younger one, led by Joshua, finally enters Canaan and initiates the next chapter in the life of the Jewish people.

What does this Torah portion teach us about how community changes and evolves?

When we stand at the threshold of something new and unfamiliar, as the Israelites did at the start of this story, there are often many questions that arise in us. What will we find on the other side? Will there be challenges ahead? If so, how will we surmount them? If the challenges are great, might it be a better course of action not to venture forth at all, but to retreat and return to the place from which we began our journey? These questions can be crippling.

Our fears and anxieties about the future can distort our perceptions and affect our attitudes and actions. Our terror over transitions can paralyze us, leaving us frozen in place rather than boldly marching forward toward new possibilities. Or it can cause us to make poor choices, to backpedal, to recoil from fearsome "giants" instead of embracing the adventure of the unknown.

In this biblical tale, the old generation of leaders must die off so that the new generation can move ahead. The Israelites needed to move beyond the timidity and fear of the slave mentality that was so much a part of its "establishment" mindset before it was ready to enter a world of fresh and challenging realities. Their nomadic existence had to give way to a more settled and secure way of life. Their leaders needed to be brash, bold, and fearless, unencumbered by the dark memories and constricting baggage of Egypt.

We are in a period of transition today not dissimilar from the one experienced by our post-Egypt forbears. For the old guard that came of age in the shadow of the Holocaust, steeped in concerns and fears about anti-Semitism and annihilation, the transition is terrifying. Their focus is often on the past, on "continuity," on battling the forces of assimilation and intermarriage, rather than embracing the future. But for younger Jews, and especially for the next generation of Jewish leaders, the current transition is exciting and filled with possibility. Their focus is on discontinuity, on new and disruptive models for Jewish life, practice, and community.

As a Gen Xer, I represent a generation in between the old guard and the millennials. I have tried, along with others in my demographic, to bring about change in the Jewish community. Will our efforts succeed? What will the Jewish future look like? It is too early to know. But one thing is certain: there is no future in looking backwards to an idealized past. Instead, we must move forward and engage, boldly and resolutely, with what lies ahead.

Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.