Numbers 13:1–15:41

By Jen Smith, Guest Torah Blogger

Empowered Positivity

This week’s Torah portion, Shelach, is focused on the plan to enter the Promised Land. Moses sends 12 spies to explore the land, charged with discovering if the Promised Land is flowing with milk and honey, or ruled by giants. Ten of the twelve spies returned to the Israelite camp with discouraging news. While the land flowed with milk and honey; it was also home to giants and other seemingly insurmountable challenges and enemies. Only two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, returned with a positive perspective, insisting that contrary to the report of the other spies, the Promised Land was not just good – in fact, it was “very very good” or Tov Meod Meod.

The Israelites, influenced by the negative report of the ten spies, lose faith in the prophecy of the Promised Land. They cry with fear, even rushing to declare that they should just give up and go back to Egypt! The despair in this confrontation ultimately leads to their downfall.  God determines that the generation that left Egypt should die in the wilderness for their faithlessness and failure to value the promise and beauty of the land, choosing instead to succumb to fear. However, Caleb and Joshua were inspired by the goodness of the land, encouraging the people to respond with courage and faith.

After the catastrophe of the spies, the Torah abruptly shifts to the issue of how to offer sacrifices (korbanot) once the Israelites enter the land, reaffirming the principle that reality is built on a foundation of joy, celebration, and gratitude. 

On the sixth day of creation, God declares that the completed work of Creation is “very good.” According to Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, a 15th century Italian philosopher and physician, this day is called “very good” instead of “good” like other days because it represents the culmination of all the preceding details as Divine creation comes to fruition. For Caleb and Joshua, the land was “very, very good.” In one commentary, Rabbi Sforno argues that the Torah hints that all the joy that came from the Israelite’s entering the Promised land was better, deeper, and richer than the satisfaction that God experienced following the final day of creation.

When the world was originally created, it was perfect. We had not yet eaten the forbidden fruit, built the Golden Calf, polluted our waterways, or warmed the atmosphere. Although our environmental crisis seems dire and climate projections discouraging, like Caleb and Joshua, we must be guided by courage and the knowledge that despite everything, our land is still very, very good. It is through creation’s trials and our growth from infancy to maturity that we can gain a similar insight to that of Caleb and Joshua – that, in fact, the work is very, VERY good.

The juxtaposition of the story of the spies and the instruction for the korbanot reminds us not to despair at damage done thus far. Even – or perhaps, especially – when faced with insurmountable challenges or undefeatable enemies, we must preserve our faith and our trust in God. The fog of fear often obstructs our view of the path forward, and faith is the deciding factor between freedom and oppression. 

May we all strive to see the world as Joshua and Caleb once did – a beautifully divine gift with endless potential. After all, it is never too late for us to wake up and change our behaviors – personally, communally, and globally.