Sometimes we can feel in our bones that something is going to go wrong. We can’t explain why or how, but we can sense the impending trouble. Some call it intuition. Behavioral Economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky might term it “thinking fast,” with our subconscious outpacing the centers of rational reasoning; bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell might call it “thinking without thinking.” One of my mentors, Hedy Peyser, LCSW, would often reiterate, “sometimes you just know.”
Moses knew. It would be easy to presume that God had foreshadowed the rebellion of all but two of the spies that he sent to survey the Promised Land. But perhaps he had become such a seasoned leader, well-versed in the realities of social unrest and chronic uncertainty, that he could sense that something was not right. Perhaps he knew the character of the twelve chieftains, representing one of the Israelite tribes, whom he charged with gathering information about the population, its settlements, their agricultural produce, and the land itself. Perhaps there was just something in the way that they carried themselves. Perhaps the work carried with it too much power and the temptation to venture from the sacred pursuit of knowledge to the personal pursuit of glory or power. So much could go wrong in the nature of their report – or in their very nature.
Rather than preemptively disciplining or threatening the spies, Moses chooses a path of moderation: elevating the righteous among them and accepting with an openness that much lay beyond his control. In Numbers 13:16, we read that “Moses changed the name of Hosea son of Nun to Joshua.” The additional Hebrew letter yud in his name makes it into a prayer: “May God save you” – or, as understood in Tractate Sotah of the Babylonian Talmud, “God will save you” from the malign influence of those who seek to sew fear and unrest. In time, it became evident that Caleb, too, had remained a “servant” (Numbers 14:24) of God and impermeable to the malign influence of his peers.
The twelve spies ventured out for forty days. Ten of those spies come back reporting that “The people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites [giants] there” (Numbers 13:28). Most troublingly, they conclude that God and Moses are wrong and that the Israelites can never gain possession of the land: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we [are]” (Numbers 13:31)
Caleb objects. Joshua objects. The Israelites panic and rail against Moses and Aaron. God rails against the Israelites and threatens to destroy them. Moses is upset – but calls upon God’s greatest attributes – being “slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression” while allowing for natural consequences to permeate human existence (Numbers 14:18). God spares the Israelites; the Israelites spare Moses and Aaron; Moses has affirmed the character of his successor and elevated Caleb as another strong leader of the next generation – and sidelined other problematic leaders.
Moses uses his premonitions to look beyond the immediate crisis. The failure of the next generation of chieftains could not be corrected with discipline, but rather with disciples. The ongoing Israelites’ fear could not be mollified with curated facts and rosy reports – but in allowing the spies to surface their worst fears and addressing them directly.
Parshat Sh’lach underscores Moses’ strengths as a leader with patience, perspective, and the ability to turn painful premonitions into possibilities for renewal.
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and the Director of Leadership Formation at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.