Rabbi Dean Shapiro

Dusty from the road, the tribes of Israel arrive at the Promised Land. They’ve crossed the sea, built the mishkan, fought, hungered and heard God’s own voice. Having now reached the border, their destination is in sight and they suppose their exodus is over. They are mistaken. It is just getting started.

In Parashat Sh’lach L’cha, the 12 scouts reconnoiter the Holy Land to ascertain “what kind of country it is” (Numbers 13:18). Moses asks them to answer a series of questions: “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). Some questions ask for raw data. Others require the scouts make judgement calls.

Within the Torah text, Moses does not give them criterion for their determinations. What is meant by “strong” and “weak”? The Midrash, however, adds to Moses’ instructions: “If the people dwell in open communities they are strong, for they are confident of their own strength. If (they dwell in) fortified cities, they are weak and their hearts timid” (Bamidbar Rabbah 16:12).

What a powerful insight. We might have presumed that fortified cities signaled strength. After all, only wealthy nation-states and towns can build high walls. But it is also true that strong nation-states don’t require such physical protection. Although many equate strength exclusively with military might, this is only one measure. Nation-states are strong if they are at peace with their neighbors. Nation-states are strong if inhabitants are healthy, safe and content living there. Nation-states are strong when their culture flourishes. Nation-states are strong when they can afford to share.

As with nations and cities, so too with people. Those who build walls of self-importance are sometimes the most vulnerable folk, afraid to be revealed as weak, as frauds, as worthless. They brag instead of share, demean instead of support, obfuscate instead of tell the truth, demand instead of ask. More secure people, by contrast, those who are confident in their own worth, discuss their feelings and ask for help. They admit mistakes and limitations. They share the spotlight. Their openness is evidence of their strength.

The reverse is also true. Some people seek to erase themselves. If they shrink out of sight, they reckon, they won’t be exposed. This undervaluing of self is embodied by the ten scouts in our story who make the case against entering the Promised Land. They tell the Israelites that “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to [the native people]” (Numbers 13:33). Lacking appropriate self-esteem, they transform their own insecurity into a vision of others’ grandiosity.

In his book “Everyday Holiness,” Alan Morinis associates humility with healthy self-esteem. It is the gentle balance of “limiting oneself to an appropriate space while leaving room for others.” A person with a healthy sense of self knows when to step forward — sharing, asking, laughing, needing — and also when to step back — listening, considering, supporting, waiting.

Rather than puffing ourselves up or debasing ourselves, we might follow the path of humility, embodied by Joshua and Caleb. They have confidence in their own abilities (“Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of [the land], for we shall surely overcome it” [Numbers 13:30]), acknowledge the strengths of others (“the land that we traversed and scouted is exceedingly good land” [14:7]), and recognize their own limitations (“If pleased with us, God will bring us into that land” [14:8]). They are neither walled-off nor doormats.

Perhaps it is because of their humility that God taps Joshua and Caleb to be the people’s next leaders. JN

Rabbi Dean Shapiro is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of Tempe.

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