Weekly parsha: June 14 2014

Torah portion Tuesdays: Parshat Shelach

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Torah portion Tuesdays is our weekly feature where Cantor Matt Axelrod breaks down each week’s passage so that budding bar and bat mitzvah students can better understand and relate to the text.

This week’s Torah portion, Shelach, contains a powerful message about self-confidence and feeling ready to tackle new challenges — material that’s especially appropriate for b’nei mitzvah kids as well as adults.

As the action begins, the Israelites are preparing to conquer the land of Canaan that God promised them. First, though, they’re instructed to send scouts — one from each tribe — to cross over the border and check things out. What kind of people will they encounter? What’s the land like? And, of course, is there anything good to eat?

Moses chooses the 12 scouts and sends them on a 40-day mission, after which they return with information.

And here is where things turn ugly.

Yes, they confirm, it’s a beautiful land! Just like God described it. There is wonderful vegetation and delicious fruit to eat. But the people we saw — oh those people. They were huge, like giants. They would crush us in a second. And if they saw us, they would think we were like grasshoppers in comparison. No way we could conquer that land. Just forget about the whole thing.

Immediately, two of the 12 scouts, Joshua and Caleb, step forward and disagree with everything. What are you talking about? Of course we can conquer this land, they say. God will make sure that we are victorious and allow us to inhabit this beautiful land that He promised us. We can do it!

But the damage is done. The people are discouraged and disheartened. They turn on Moses and accusingly ask him how he could make them leave Egypt and bring them out here to die in the wilderness. The Israelites collectively transform into a quivering and frightened group, all because a bunch of the scouts lost their nerve.

At this point, God has had it with this frustrating bunch of Israelites and tells Moses that He’s ready to wipe them all out and start over. Moses employs a great strategy and uses some social pressure on God. He asks, “How would it look to everyone else if you did that? They would think that God took the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt just to let them die in the desert.” God realizes this wouldn’t be the best PR move and decides to let them live. But with one major condition attached.

Because of their insecurity and their inability to believe in themselves, this generation would have to die off first, and only their children could make it into the Promised Land. God sentenced them to wander through the wilderness for 40 years — one year for each day of their disastrous scouting mission.

Those scouts acted in a very human way — they were faced with a challenge that seemed huge to them, and instead of realizing that they could accomplish something new, they decided that they couldn’t go through with it, and made up excuses why they weren’t good enough.

And what ever happened to Joshua and Caleb, the two scouts who were ready to go forward? They were the only ones of that generation who were allowed to cross over into Canaan.

Because no matter how old you are, when you believe in yourself, you can do anything.

Previous week’s parshas:

Parshat Beha’alotcha

Parshat Naso

Parshat Bamidbar

Parshat Bechukotai

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

Posted 12:00 am, June 10, 2014
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