Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs
In the second year of their journey from Egypt, God instructs Moses to send twelve scouts, one from each of the twelve Israelite tribes, to spy on the Promised Land (Numbers 13 ff). Moses requests that the spies bring back a detailed report of the land they plan to invade and conquer.
The spies return and tell Moses, essentially, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the land is wonderful. It is rich and fertile; it “flows with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27). To prove their point, the spies return with a cluster of grapes so rich and lush that it took two men to bear the pole to which the grapes were attached (Numbers 13:23). To this day, two men carrying a huge cluster of grapes is the official seal of Israel’s Ministry of tourism.
The bad news, according to ten of the twelve scouts, is that the land is unconquerable. The people are “giants” and we will seem to them “like grasshoppers” (Numbers 14:33).
Two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, disagree contending that God has promised us this land, and we need to have the faith and courage to do our part and carry out God’s plan.
Nevertheless, the naysayers rail against Moses for ‘rescuing’ them from Egypt only to die out in the wilderness. “It would be better for us to go back to Egypt. Let us head back to Egypt” (Numbers 14:3-4).
As when the Israelites made the Golden Calf, God is angry enough at the people’s lack of faith to destroy them. But once again, Moses stands between the people and God’s anger. Using the same argument as with the Golden Calf, Moses says: “When the Egyptians, from whose midst You brought up this people in Your might, hear the news, they will tell it to the inhabitants of that land… If then You slay this people to a man the nations who have heard Your fame will say, It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land He had promised them on oath that He slaughtered them in the wilderness” (Numbers 14:13-16).
Moses’ appeal to God’s concern for the divine reputation is an example of biblical humor that misleads some into labeling God as a vain and self-absorbed deity. Au contraire. God could not care less what either the Egyptians or other nations think. The intent is to demonstrate the sacred partnership between God and Moses.
Those times when he restrains God’s wrath are Moses’ finest hours. Even though God promises to glorify Moses with a new and improved nation, Moses will not have it. This is Your people, Moses insists, whom You freed from the land of Egypt. You cannot destroy them.
The crucial message of this incident, as with the Golden Calf, is that Moses and God are partners. When God seemed ready to give up on the people, Moses offered encouragement, perspective and hope. When Moses runs out of faith, God strengthens him.
I hope that it is that way with us. When life is most difficult, I hope we hear a voice within ⎯ I call it God ⎯ that urges us to continue. It is a voice imploring us to believe in ourselves and to believe that our lives have purpose.
Like our Eternal Covenant I believe the relationship is reciprocal. Through our god-like acts of compassion and sharing, we inspire God’s compassion just as Moses had done.
Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is the author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He is also rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford and the former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.