At the opening of this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Shelach-Lecha, God instructs Moses to select twelve spies who will journey from camp and explore the land of Israel. Moses asks these scouts to consider a number of important questions. He says, “Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?” (Numbers 13:18-20) Moses and the Israelites are preparing for the conquest of the land and will need as much information as possible if they will be successful in their endeavors. Much to Moses’ disappointment though, ten of the spies return to camp explaining that the people who inhabit the land are powerful, the cities are fortified, and groups of other people, including Anakites, Amalekites, Hitties, Jebusites, Amorites, and Canaanites are already present in the land (Numbers 13:27-29). Given such challenges, these ten spies suggest that it will be impossible to conquer the land. It would be better to return to Egypt than engage in an unsuccessful conquest. Only Caleb and Joshua iterate the stance that it is still possible to pursue conquest of the land; they need to have faith both in God and in their own abilities to ensure success. The actions of the spies come with harsh consequences. Because of what appears to be a lack of faith in God’s ability to deliver the Israelites victory in their conquest, the Israelites are condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years until their generation dies off. So many Israelites are punished because a small sampling of their community demonstrates a lack of faith and a fear of the possible consequences.
What would have happened had the Israelites proceeded with the conquest of Israel at that point? We are left to wonder whether or not they would have been successful, whether or not this particular generation would have lived to have seen and experienced the flowing milk and honey of the Promised Land. All of our actions come with consequences. A seemingly minor decision to participate in an event or not participate, to support a cause or not, to accept or shirk responsibility, may cause a small situation to escalate into something truly significant, with lasting implications not only for ourselves, but for other people around us well.
What is amazing about the Torah portion in this week’s parashah, as well as in the conclusion of the Torah, is that in the entire story of the Torah, we hear about the beauty of the land of Israel, we are poised to conquer and enter the land, but we never actually enter the land properly. (Those events are reserved for the subsequent books of the Prophets).
Perhaps the lesson is that like the ancient Israelites, we can never know in advance the consequences of our actions. We can never know if our actions will yield the “beauty of the Promised Land” or what that “Promised Land” will actually look like. The journey of our lives is replete with highs and lows, successes and failures, challenges that we are able to overcome and others that we can not. We must always be conscious that our actions will have consequences, but not be fearful of this fact. Like Caleb and Joshua we must continue to have faith in God for strength and guidance, as well as faith in our own abilities to accomplish and achieve that which we desire. Awareness of potential consequences is important. Living in fear of possible and potential outcomes without acting is reflective of no life at all.