With Rabbi Garry Wayland
One of the real disasters of the Torah is the story of the Spies in this week’s sedra (Numbers 13-14).
The Jews, on the cusp of entering the Land of Israel, appoint 12 of the greatest leaders to spy out the land, assess it strategically, as well as report on the reality of the Land of Milk and Honey that had previously been only a dream.
However, this mission, seemingly undertaken with God’s approval, quickly sours as ten of the spies criticise the land, and doubt their ability to conquer it.
The people, losing faith in God, begin to shed tears: the generation is condemned to wander in the desert and the tears become ‘tears for the generations’, seen by our Sages as being at the root of the subsequent wanderings and exiles we have had to endure.
One group decided to deal with the news proactively – although denied entry to Israel, their reaction was to attempt to conquer it. This group that “stubbornly ascended”, without Divine protection, were smashed by the native Canaanites.
Why this reaction, and why were they killed so horrifically? The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Berlin, Poland/Russia, d.1893) says they were attempting to correct their mistakes, and so were prepared to undertake a suicide mission to prove how much they wanted the land.
However, he says, that although normally the best way to repent is by tackling the issue head on, this is only when doing so is not a sin. As they did not have God’s approval, they were all killed.
A natural reaction to sin is self-sacrifice. Guilt is a very powerful emotion, and a way of dealing with this feeling that I am inadequate, I have done wrong, is by denying the I – giving up myself.
The consequences are often good – inducing a sense of humility, of not feeling that I am the centre of the world, and that my wants don’t always come before the needs of others.
Too much self-negation, however, is destructive.
Running a suicide mission, even for the noblest of causes, is crossing a very narrow bridge.
This group of stubborn rebels could not live with their guilt and preferred to dice with death rather than cope with life, and in doing so, lost the sense of what is right and wrong.
The solution is the affirmation of life and self-worth, and although it is not always the easiest option, it is the one that endures eternally.