In Parshas Shlach in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) is the story of the “spies.” The princes of the tribes are given permission by G-d to scout and appraise Palestine as B’nai Yisroel prepares to enter the Land Promised by G-d. Prior to this there is a discussion between Moshe Rabbenu (“our teacher”) and G-d. According to the commentator Rashi Moshe told G-d he had attempted to dissuade them by reminding them G-d promised He would “…bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt” to the land He promised to the Jewish people. G-d answered by saying, “I shall give them an opportunity to err through the words of the spies.” They were determined to go and spy the land. When they returned ten of the twelve gave grave reports to Moshe, Aharon and the children of Israel of fierce people and fortified cities “in order to make them afraid.” All but two expressed a unanimous opinion the land was unconquerable and “eats up the inhabitants…”
The congregation of B’nai Yisroel responded in fear and protest to Moshe and Aharon. G-d said to Moshe, “How long will this people despise Me and how long will they not believe in Me, for all the signs which I have wrought among them!” Initially G-d wanted to destroy them but following negotiations with Moshe He proclaimed all that generation would die in the desert over forty years and none would be allowed into the land (except Caleb and Joshua) and the generations who did not witness or participate in their loss of faith.
I want to focus on one of numerous issues brought up in this section, the response to the obstacles seen by the spies and accepted by the congregation. B’nai Yisroel exhibits this sudden loss of faith throughout the Torah which invariably brings about plagues and death. They seem not to learn, nor to sustain their faith in G-d despite direct and personal experience of His Omnipotence and Omnipresence. In this case it is none other than the princes of the tribes, the greatest of their generation that are totally convinced their conclusions override their faith in G-d’s Promises.
Torah commentaries on this episode abound through the ages. What were their intentions? Why couldn’t they maintain their faith in G-d’s prophesies and continue forward as they were about ready to enter the Promised Land? All of these strong and righteous men saw the same things yet only two arrived at different conclusions and remained faithful to G-d’s plan. They all saw it was an “exceedingly good land…which floweth milk and honey.” Yet the ten spies fear of the inhabitants of the land spread the contamination throughout the camp and aroused the rath of G-d.
This brief yet ultimately influential episode gives us a powerful key to understand the nature of obstacles in our own lives to this day. This section of the Holy Torah reveals a recurring pattern for B’nei Yiroel with the extra effect of extending the journey from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land from a duration of a few weeks to forty years. In some ways the result of their behavior was worse than the plagues they had suffered in prior occasions. Why did G-d chose to prevent the generation that witnessed the greatest miracles of all time enter the land? To live throughout the years knowing they would never see the fruition of the Exodus? Was it simply the loss of faith of the people and their leaders of G-d’s Promises?
Commentaries of the sages allude to some of the answers. The princes were wise and intelligent men not without great spiritual depth. Their leadership was deserved. They were superior leaders and exercised sincere responsibility for thier tribes. They also understood the nature of the change that would take place once the people entered Eretz Yisroel from a totally spiritual existance to a more independent and worldly actualization of G-d’s law into the daily life of work and toil. On one level they believed it was too much of a challenge for a generation becoming accustomed to G-dly shelter, protection and nourishment. On the other hand they saw the obstacles awaiting them in the land as beyond their ability to conquer. Since this generation was to be the rishonim (first) to leave the desert, enter the Promised Land and everything would follow from their examples, they were essentially disqualified. Missing was a very specific quality Hashem wanted to set the tone in the creation of the new Jewish state.
Certainly He wanted a highly developed spiritual and religious group of leaders. The desire to spy out the land became a test brought about by their own inclinations. There are precedents thoughout Jewish history that produced different outcomes. One such episode is Akeidas Yitzchak (the binding of Isaac).
Avraham was informed by G-d he and his offspring would by the progenitors of a great nation. Shortly afterwards he G-d told him to sacrifice this only son of his wife, Sarah. This presented a great challenge since the one act would cancell out the prophecy. Beyond the pain of sacrificing his beloved son was the sheer impossibility of the obstacles placed before him. Never the less, without protest he moved forward ‘as if there was no obstacle at all.’ Avraham’s total faith in Hashem superceded the logical intrinsic problem. As we know, Yitzchak was replaced by a ram for the sacrifice and Avraham “passed” this tremendous obstacle on the way.
Another hint into managing obstacles is found in Rebbe Nachman of Breslav’s story of “The Lost Princess.” As the prime minister volunteers to search for the missing princess for the king, he travels all over until he comes upon a huge fortress staffed with armed guards stationed all around, with horses and weaponry. He has reason to believe the princess may be held within and decides to “go and try” to enter the grounds. But nothing happens. He walks through the gates, passes the guards and no one even notices him when he explores throughout the rooms of the edifice. What is going on here? The fortress appears particuilarly menacing and dangerous as an obstacle to his mission and he thinks he may be killed. Despite all appearances we discover the fortress is really illusory and the obstacle in truth does not exist.
This is the lesson we can take from the the episode. Holding to the task or mission and moving forward regardless of the appearance of of obstacles is what G-d wanted of the people. The inclination to fear and respond to imposing obstacles is natural. Hashem’s mission for the Jews is not merely fulfillment of nature and natural law, but rather “supernatural.” As we can see in the course of history, the Jewish people have defied the natural order of events and instead of being wiped out, continue to thrive and advance.
In psychiatry the problems of encountering “insurmountable obstacles” is endemic in all people. This can “stop one in his tracks” as he settles into a defeatist attitude or assume he’s reached the limitations of nature. Yet, the lessons of the Bible are for all mankind, not just the Jewish people. We will all encounter obstacles. In such a case, the advise is to “go and try” anyway since wondrous things await us if we do.