Growing Where You Already Are

Dena Weiss

Parashat Shelah

This week’s parashah begins with a lot of forward momentum. Benei Yisrael are so close to reaching the culmination of the Exodus from Egypt and finally entering into the land that God had promised to them. Scouts are sent into the land to investigate it. But their return marks a shift in trajectory as they bring back a frightening report about gigantic fruit, the giants who eat it, and a land that consumes its own inhabitants.1 Benei Yisrael react to this report with panic and attempt to reverse course. Despite all of the horrors that they went through in Egypt, their fundamental reaction to the challenges of conquering the land of Israel is to give up completely. Instead of moving forward, they want to go back, even at the price of death: 

במדבר יד:א-ד

1וַתִּשָּׂא כָּל הָעֵדָה וַיִּתְּנוּ אֶת קוֹלָם וַיִּבְכּוּ הָעָם בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא: 2וַיִּלֹּנוּ עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן כֹּל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם כָּל הָעֵדָה לוּ מַתְנוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם אוֹ בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה לוּ מָתְנוּ: 3וְלָמָה ה' מֵבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לִנְפֹּל בַּחֶרֶב נָשֵׁינוּ וְטַפֵּנוּ יִהְיוּ לָבַז הֲלוֹא טוֹב לָנוּ שׁוּב מִצְרָיְמָה: 4וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל אָחִיו נִתְּנָה רֹאשׁ וְנָשׁוּבָה מִצְרָיְמָה:


BeMidbar 14:1-4

1The entire group raised their voices and the entire people cried on that night. 2All of Benei Yisrael complained about Moshe and about Aharon, the entire group saying to them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt or in this desert, if only we had died! 3Why is God bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be spoils of war. Isn’t it better for us to return to Egypt?!” 4And each man said to his fellow, “Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt.”


The fear and panic that Benei Yisrael exhibit here is understandable, but examining what they say more closely can give us access to the real concern that animates them. Benei Yisrael do not say that they want to go back to Egypt because they will be safer there. They understand that they are in a landless, dangerous condition that will likely lead to death, regardless of the course they take. This leads to the fundamental question: If they are going to die anyway, why do they prefer to die immediately in the desert or to go back to Egypt? Why do they choose to retreat rather than to charge forward?

It seems that they aren’t afraid of death; what they are afraid of is defeat. The worst outcome they can imagine is that someone would lead them into a situation where they would put in effort and not succeed. And the moral lesson to be learned from their mistake is that learning to love work for work’s sake, and being willing to put forth effort that yields no tangible results, is essential to developing oneself both spiritually and morally. In fact, working without the guarantee of positive results is the way that R. Levi characterizes the entire project of learning Torah:

ויקרא רבה (מרגליות) מצורע יט 

א' ר' לוי לקסטל נקוב ששכר בעליו פועלין למלאותו. מי שטיפש מהו אומר, מה אני מועיל מכניס בזו ומוציא בזו. מי שפיקח מהו אומר, והלא שכר כל חבית וחבית אני נוטל. כך מי שטיפש מהו אומר, מה אני מועיל ללמוד תורה ומשכחה. מי שפיקח מהו אומר, ולא שכר יגיעה הקדוש ברוך הוא נותן.


VaYikra Rabbah (Margaliot) Metzora 19

R. Levi said: It is like a basket with holes whose owners hired workers to fill it. The dull [worker], what does he say? “What am I gaining? It goes in [this opening] and goes out that one!” What does the alert one say? “Don’t I get reward for each jug?!” Similarly, what does the dull one say? “What have I gained in learning Torah and forgetting it?!” What does the alert one say? “Doesn’t God pay for effort?!”


R. Levi knows that intellectual and spiritual labor can feel futile and frustrating. We often find that for every bit of wisdom we acquire, there is another piece of Torah that we forget. We continuously struggle to become the kind of people that we want to be, yet we find ourselves almost unchanged. R. Levi’s contribution is to teach us that the difficulty is the critical feature of progress. God is less invested in the goals that we achieve than in how hard we work to achieve them. In our own eyes, failure feels like failure, but God savors the sweat of our brow. And perhaps it is because God so loves the work that perfection itself proves so elusive.  

God’s valuing of the work itself is also echoed in Pirkei Avot:

משנה אבות א:ג

אנטיגנוס איש סוכו קיבל משמעון הצדיק. הוא היה אומר, אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב, על מנת לקבל פרס, אלא הוו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב, על מנת שלא לקבל פרס; ויהי מורא שמיים עליכם.


Mishnah Avot 1:3

Antigonos of Sokho received from Shimon, the righteous. He would say: Do not be like servants who serve their master in order to receive a reward, rather be like servants who serve the master regardless of whether you receive a reward, and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.


The great Hassidic master, R. Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl,2 author of the Me’or Einayim, suggests that abandoning a quest for spiritual progress and the feeling of success plays a vital role in experiencing real spiritual growth. He explains that most people know that absence comes before presence and that failure comes before victory, so they accept some amount of spiritual regression in the quest for closeness to God. They think that they are descending in order to ascend and are willing to accept when they feel distant from God in order to become even closer to God in the end. However, the Me’or Einayim is not satisfied with this approach: 

ספר מאור עינים - פרשת יתרו

אך האמת שהאדם הוא אינו יכול לעמוד תמיד על מדריגה אחת… וטעם אחד הוא כדי שיבוא אחר כך למדריגה יותר גדולה שבכל דבר צריך להיות העדר קודם להויה וכשרוצים להגביה למדריגה יותר גדולה צריך להיות העדר קודם לכן צריך ליפול ממדריגה שהוא עכשיו...


Me’or Einayim, Parashat Yitro

But the truth is that a person cannot constantly stand on one level… and one reason is that it is in order that he come afterwards to a greater level. For in every thing, there needs to be absence before presence. And when we want to rise up to a greater level, there needs to be an absence before then, therefore he needs to fall from the level that he is at now...


According to the Me’or Einayim, the “take one step back for two steps forward” approach to viewing spiritual progress is limited. Instead, he argues that a person should focus not only on where they want to go but also on the place where they are now. There is no time in your life that is a vacuum, just a means to get you somewhere else. Every moment of your journey has intrinsic value. God is present even in the places that feel distant and even in the stages that feel low and far from your goal:

והנה צריך האדם שגם בנפלו ממדריגתו יתאמץ לעלות אל ה' באותו מדריגה שהוא עכשיו כי צריך להאמין שמלא כל הארץ כבודו (ישעיה ו:ג) ולית אתר פנוי מיניה ואפילו במדריגה שהוא עכשיו יש גם כן השם יתברך כי לית אתר פנוי מיניה רק שהוא מצומצם מאוד… דהיינו אפילו במקום שהוא כל הארץ שכולו ארציות שהוא רק חומר עב אף על פי כן מלא כבודו יתברך


So it is necessary for a person, even when he falls from his level, to gather his strength and rise up to His Blessed Name in the level that he is in now. Because he has to believe that the whole earth (kol ha’aretz) is full of His glory (kavod) (Yeshayah 6:3), and there is no place vacant of Him. And His Blessed Name is even present in the level where he is now, for there is no place vacant of Him; He is just very compressed… That is that even in a place that is all earth (kol ha’aretz), that is entirely earthiness, that is just coarse matter, nevertheless, it is full of His, the Blessed One’s, presence (kavod).


יחשוב כשנפל ממדרגתו הלא חי אני ומי הוא החיות שלי הלא הבורא יתברך?! ונמצא יש כאן גם כן הוא יתברך אך שהוא מצומצם מאוד:


And he should think when he falls from his level, “Aren’t I alive?! And who is my vitality? Isn’t it the Blessed Creator?” And it will turn out that even here, His Blessed Name is very compressed.  


The Me’or Einayim understands that life always comes with challenging moments. We can choose to ignore these stages and think of them as mere distractions or detours, but that is a mistake. Instead we should dig into where we are and engage fully in the challenge of experiencing a relationship with God that is characterized by distance. He tells you to embrace the difficulty of work that feels fruitless, like it is “just” work, and to accept that growth doesn’t always feel like growth. Instead of asking, “Where can I go?” ask yourself, “Why am I here?” God is not only on a higher plane, God is also on what feels like a lower plane. God is not only somewhere you need to get to, God is also where you already are.  

It is precisely this perspective that Benei Yisrael are lacking in our parashah. They are unwilling, or perhaps, just unable to live out lives that include failure. They won’t enter the land if they can’t conquer it; they are afraid of effort for naught. Their all-or-nothing attitude is reflected in their reaction to their punishment for accepting the spies’ negative report. Benei Yisrael find out that because of their cowardice and complaints, they will not be proceeding on to Israel. They will also not return to Egypt. They will not even die immediately; instead they will be forced to live out the rest of their lives in the desert, 

במדבר יד:לד

בְּמִסְפַּר הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר תַּרְתֶּם אֶת הָאָרֶץ אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם יוֹם לַשָּׁנָה יוֹם לַשָּׁנָה תִּשְׂאוּ אֶת עֲוֹנֹתֵיכֶם אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה וִידַעְתֶּם אֶת תְּנוּאָתִי:


BeMidbar 14:34

According to the number of days that you spied on the land, for 40 days, one year for each day. You will bear your sins for 40 years, and you will know My displeasure.


This resolution is unbearable to Benei Yisrael, and they try to undo their past mistake. Their desperation drives them to try to enter the land of Israel anyway:

במדבר יד:מ-מא, מד-מה

40וַיַּשְׁכִּמוּ בַבֹּקֶר וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶל רֹאשׁ הָהָר לֵאמֹר הִנֶּנּוּ וְעָלִינוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר ה' כִּי חָטָאנוּ: 41וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לָמָּה זֶּה אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת פִּי ה' וְהִוא לֹא תִצְלָח:...44וַיַּעְפִּלוּ לַעֲלוֹת אֶל רֹאשׁ הָהָר וַאֲרוֹן בְּרִית ה' וּמֹשֶׁה לֹא מָשׁוּ מִקֶּרֶב הַמַּחֲנֶה: 45וַיֵּרֶד הָעֲמָלֵקִי וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּהָר הַהוּא וַיַּכּוּם וַיַּכְּתוּם עַד הַחָרְמָה


BeMidbar 14:40-41, 44-45

40They woke up early in the morning and went up to the top of the hill country saying, “We’re ready to go up to the land that God has spoken, for we have sinned.” 41Moshe said, “Why are you transgressing the word of God? It won’t be successful.”... 44But they presumed to go up to the top of the hill country, even though neither the ark of God’s covenant nor Moshe had moved from the camp. 45Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them, pursuing them as far as Hormah.


Why is this choice that Benei Yisrael made to enter the land of Israel not considered to be a righteous act, a declaration of repentance? Why did it have to be met with death and destruction rather than success? The answer is that it is repentance on the surface for the external sin of refusing to go into the land, but it does not touch on the root of the problem. Benei Yisrael did not need to be willing to go into Israel and die there, but to be willing to accept being where they are. Their real sin was not that they were swayed by the negative report of the spies; their sin was in their reaction, their impatience. If you are in the desert, you are supposed to be in the desert. If you are on a path, your job is to walk, even without a guarantee that you’ll reach your destination. And this might have been too steep a demand for Benei Yisrael to meet, but it is still a goal that we, as their descendants, can strive for.  

Our parashah closes with the mitzvah to wear tzitzit. The language that the verse uses to describe the purpose of the mitzvah is ולא תתורו, you will not seek. Tzitzit remind the wearer to follow the will of God and not to follow the impressions of one’s eyes. This language echoes the opening of our parashah שְׁלַח לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, You should send out men, and they will seek information about the land of Cana’an. This points to the way in which tzitzit come to address or compensate for the sin of the spies. And the commandment ends with, 

במדבר טו:מא

אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹקיכֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לִהְיוֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹקיכֶם.


BeMidbar 15:41

I am HaShem your God, that I have taken you out of the land of Egypt in order to be your God. I am HaShem your God.


The final words of this parashah belong to God’s saying, “I took you out of Egypt in order to be your God.” God did not redeem us in order to take us into Israel, but in order to be our God, wherever we are.  

1 BeMidbar 13.