In our parashah this week, God instructs Moses to, “Send for yourself men that they may scout out the Land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Israel” (Numbers 13:1–2).
Always sensitive to the language of this text, a challenging midrash focuses on the actual words of God’s command to Moses, “Send for yourself men that they may scout out the Land”. The wording, “send for yourself” suggests that God is saying, “I have already assured you that you are being led to a good and beautiful land. Included in this promise is the assurance that I you will be able to conquer the Land and establish yourself there as a nation. However, if that assurance is not enough, if you have doubts, then send scouts. If this is what you need, then go ahead and do it.” Clearly this was a concession to the human insecurities of the Israelites, not the concern of an all-powerful God.
This understanding of the text reflects one of the great theological conundrums of our religious tradition: the tension between the omnipotence of God and gift of free will with which God created humankind. As free agents, we are empowered to choose our courses of action, regardless of the foreseeable consequences (foreseeable by God, or by us). If God can see bad things ahead, does God have a responsibility to intervene? If an all-knowing and all-powerful God chooses not to intervene and allows us to proceed despite the obvious dangerous consequences of our behavior, who should be held responsible for the inevitable outcomes? Should a merciful God not intercede for the benefit of all? Should we as humans? Would we feel more secure with a more interventionist God?
The notion of free will is a highly complex concept. Our tradition maintains that the God-given human freedom to choose between good and evil is a divine gift. There are consequences to our choices, but the choices are ours. And, for those choices, we must take responsibility. That is how we grow and develop as human beings.
I like to view life through relationship paradigms. In families, parents are often faced with the hard question of whether to intervene to prevent a child from making a bad choice. This never changes, despite the age of the child. As children get older, we always fear the risk of infantilisation, possibly damaging the relationship as a result. We must struggle with the urge to protect our children, while recognizing that to be an adult requires making personal choices and learning to take responsibility for the consequences. Too much “Helicopter Parenting” can thwart a child’s independence and march to maturity.
For Israel, as a people just out of slavery in Egypt and experiencing freedom for the first time, God had to take them by the hand and provide for almost all of their needs. But our God is no “Helicopter God”. Our rabbis taught that God certainly has the power to intervene but chooses not to. Being human means having the freedom to choose how you wish to lead your life. That is how God created us. In our relationship with God, this is no less true than in any other significant relationship we maintain in our lives.
As instructed, Moses did send the scouts into the Land of Canaan and, as expected, they result was not so good. The scouts spoke their truth, shared their perception, and responded out of their insecurities. This was their choice. As a result they ended up wandering in the wilderness for forty years, allowing that older generation to shed their insecurities and strengthen their faith in God and themselves. It required a new generation to achieve success in the Land. Despite the fact that God could have easily brought the generation of the wilderness into the Land, they were not yet ready. The older generation had to pay the price for their decisions, but that allowed the nation as a whole to grow and develop into a people of courage and faith.