And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size.” — Numbers 13:32
The Torah portion for this week is Shelach, which means “send,” from Numbers 13:1–15:41, and the Haftorah is from Joshua 2:1–24.
In this week’s Torah portion, when 10 out of the 12 spies brought back a bad report about the land of Canaan, they reported, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size.” Many of us are so familiar with this story that we read right over those lines. But if you stop and think about it, the phrases make no sense at all. In fact, they are an outright contradiction! Either the land devours its people or the people living there are of great size and not swallowed up.
Which is it?
On the surface, the Jewish sages explain the contradiction by pointing out that God had caused many people to die during the time the spies were in Canaan. The spies noticed an unusual amount of funerals, which is why they brought back a report that said the land kills its people. The sages also point out that God caused these deaths in order to protect the spies by distracting the locals. Moreover, the people who the spies saw in the land happened to be larger in size. Perhaps the spies were saying that only such mighty people could escape the plague of a land that killed so many.
But let’s take a deeper look at this phrase, where we can find a message for us today living in our materially focused world. Literally, the Hebrew verse translates as, “The land we explored consumes those who sit in it.” The sages give the following explanation based on this translation: In the land of Israel, one must be growing spiritually constantly. Those who “sit in the land” – in other words, those who remain stagnant, complacent, and unchanging – would be consumed. Earthly materialism would take over their lives, and they would become completely enveloped in it.
The message for us wherever we live is that life is like walking up a down escalator. If you aren’t moving upward, you are automatically falling backward.
When a Jewish family moves to Israel, we refer to it in Hebrew as “making aliyah.” Aliyah means “ascent.” Moving to Israel is seen as ascending spiritually. I have a friend who once said, “It’s not enough to make aliyah once. We have to make aliyah every day – even outside Israel.”
It’s the same message as above. We have to actively ascend spiritually every day. Can we trust God a little more today? Can we be a better person today than we were yesterday? We must not make the mistake of getting so busy with the material life that we stop living and growing spiritually. Keep moving upward, one day at a time.
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With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President