Parashat Shlach – Leading With Vision

By: Michael Carr

In this week’s parasha, Sh’lach, which means “send,” God commands Moses to send 12 men to “spy out” the Promised Land before the Israelites enter into battle for its possession.

As explained in the parasha, the results of this expedition were less than remarkable for at least ten of the spies. Those spies saw only the dangers of entering the land of Canaan and described these dangers in such frightening terms that they demoralized the entire Israelite nation. It was not their finest hour. In fact, one might say that these ten men not only lacked the qualities needed for inspirational leadership but also lacked faith in God. 

Of the 12 spies that God sent to scout out the land, only two men—Caleb the son of Yefuneh and Joshua the son of Nun—had faith in the vision that God had laid out before the Israelites. The other ten incite a riot and a rebellion among the Israelites. As a consequence for leading the Israelites astray, God sends a plague to kill the ten spies who lacked faith. Caleb and Joshua are the only spies left standing.

Because of the ten spies’ success in demoralizing the Israelites, undermining their faith in God’s promise, and inciting them to rebel, God condemns that entire generation to wander in the desert for 40 years—long enough for all of the men who were 20 years and older to die in the desert and the next generation of men—those younger than 20 years of age at the time of the spies’ actions—to grow up and mature to an age when they can enter the Promised Land and fight for Abraham’s legacy. Forty years hence, when the Israelites finally enter the land, Joshua and Caleb will be the only men left from that generation. In fact, God selects Joshua as Moses’ successor and the one who will, ultimately, lead them into the Promised Land and into battle against the Canaanite tribes.

It’s a shame that those 10 spies did not realize that their mission to “spy out the land” was actually a test of faith. For me the message of this parasha is about the kind of internal beliefs that lead to the kind of confident, deliberate, and strategic decision-making process one needs to engage in when evaluating the ratio of risks to reward in any undertaking. But when the undertaking is one ordered by God, surely one can assume that the scales will be tipped in one’s favor.

It’s a shame that the Israelites couldn’t have consulted with Dwight Eisenhower, who could have shared his wartime insights with them. Eisenhower famously said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The kind of planning Eisenhower advocated could have helped those spies feel much more confident in their abilities to achieve the desired outcome. Instead, because of the doubts the 10 spies instilled, the Israelites never got to the planning stages and the two remaining spies, who had faith in God’s plan, were unable to cut through the noise generated by fear in order to lead through inspiration. Sometimes simply asking a question amongst a group of people is all that one needs to change a crowd’s focus from the negative to the positive. 

Like – How can we make this land of milk and honey OUR society?

  • A society that is a safe and healthy one, where our people will be treated not as slaves but instead with humanity, dignity and respect.
  • A society without petulant, autocratic rulers, but one which is governed through laws that are fairly administered to all.

Rather than believing that God would lead the Israelites to victory so they could enact God’s vision for creating a just human society through equality-based economic, social, and legal systems, the first 10 spies panicked upon seeing the height and breadth of the Canaanites’ physiques. Some of the spies stated that the Israelites were like grasshoppers next to the overwhelmingly large Canaanite men. In their terror they forgot all about God’s promises and focused instead on their fears their own demise because of the risks associated with taking over the Canaanite land.

What a paradox! The ten spies were so terrified of the Canaanite nation they forgot that the “word on the street” was that all the other nations should fear the Israelites because their God was so powerful they were able to escape and outrun the mighty kingdom of Egypt.

From our perspective, it seems quite obvious that the entire spy situation was a test to validate the Israelites’ fidelity to God. For if the Israelites had truly believed in God they would not have been swayed by the alarming report their ten spies had brought back regarding Canaan’s inhabitants. Right? They would have remembered that it was their God who cast plagues upon Egypt and helped Moses negotiate their exit plan and ultimate emancipation from Egypt.

For me this parasha is both about the way a lack of thoughtful, positive, and inspired leadership leaves a vacuum that is often filled by the loudest, but not necessarily the wisest voice. It’s also an example of the way that fear, when exposed to negative beliefs, can influence a population into believing the worst. By describing the Canaanite men as superhuman giants and saying that the Israelites had no hope of defeating them, the ten spies magnified the Israelites’ natural apprehensions regarding going into battle into an all-encompassing fear that surpassed their memory of God redeeming them from Egypt.

Imagine how different the Israelites’ reaction would have been—even if those ten spies had given them exactly the same information—if only those spies had ended their report by saying something like: “But with God’s help we can figure out a strategy that will allow us to defeat them, so there is no reason to fear.”

Of course, Caleb and Joshua, the two spies who stood in opposition to those ten tried to say exactly that but, by then, the Israelites had already been whipped into a panic and so their calming words went unheard.

A favorite TED Talk of mine is Simon Sinek’s How Great Leader’s Inspire Action. Sinek states that leaders hold positions of  power or authority, however, we all have the choice to seek out inspired leaders or organizations that cause us to follow—not because we have to but because we want to. 

We follow inspired leaders not for them – but for ourselves. It is up to us to choose ones that inspire us to overcome our fears rather than those who encourage us to succumb to them.

Good Shabbos!